Gaurab Raj Upadhaya
PALUNG, Makwanpur - IT this, IT that. It is even in the UNDP's latest Human Development Report. There's been endless debate the world over recently about democratising access to information technology, but few instances of development agencies figuring out where they stand on the issue-and trying to make it work. We followed one such story in Nepal.
Palung is in Makwanpur district, near Daman, about a five-hour drive south-east of Kathmandu. It is an ordinary sort of small town. And yet something in it stands out-its four-year-old audio tower. The Community Communication Program (CCP) has been operating the tower as well as a communication centre for the Village Development Committee (VDC) since 1997.
Mandate for the Future (MTF), a global Internet youth forum, wanted to make information technology accessible to young people across the world-including in Nepal-to empower them by helping them understand the world and times they live in. Mandate the Future, together with Worldview International Foundation, decided to set up communication centres including Internet access across the country, two in Nawalparasi, one in Dang, one in Dhulikhel, and another in Palung. For Palung, they found an ideal partner in CCP, and began the program here last November.
What makes the project interesting is that technology is used as a tool-the community decides to what end-and not simply an end in itself. First, youths from different neighbourhoods, were picked to act as leaders and initiate discussion on what access to computers and the Internet would mean to them.
Realising that they could decide the project's agenda, says one youth leader, is why they all got interested in the project in the first place. "We were not asked to do things," he said, "but instead asked what we wanted to do." Later, they wrote stories about how they understand the village and its people. These stories will soon be put on the web (www.mandatethefuture.org), and read by other young people across the world leading, the project hopes, to better opportunities for networking and collaboration. Eventually, they started figuring out what needed work in their area and tried to fine tune their own suggestions with information on the subject they found online. Anyone in the area can use the computer, and at any time. It is also a great alternative to expensive long-distance telephone calls, and the CCP has also decided to install a printer.
Participants agree overwhelmingly that more than anything else the project has given them a sense of the value of communication within their own community. One young woman said this was the first time she realised that she could discuss matters that affected the quality of her life with older people, and that they would listens.
All this did not start with computers, though, but with the audio tower. The tower was useful enough earlier, broadcasting news and local announcements, but after discussing the possibilities of the technology they already had, the youth of Palung have diversified and increased programming to include advice and discussion on sanitation, community health and agriculture.
And yet, it is the lone computer that has created and sustained interest in the project-it is the only reason many residents of the area allow their children, especially their daughters, to participate in the project and the meetings it entails. About 25 youth leaders-14 women and 11 men between the ages of 15-25-conduct a fortnightly discussion on radio programming and networking possibilities over the Internet that would bring benefits to local people. They are coming up with more ideas for income generation and self-development. Of course, there is a lot that can still be done, says Bijay Bhatt, program manager at Worldview International. "This is just the beginning, we will have to see where all it takes us."
The program is not out of the woods yet-the erratic power supply and frequent computer breakdowns are problems they will have to find solutions to soon. Recently, the computer was out of order for almost a month, and had to be brought to Kathmandu for repairs. The main drawback in the implementation is one that has plagued many such projects-the users were not trained to use the computer, they had to learn everything on their own. They were taught how to access the Internet, but not how to use search engines efficiently. One participant recalls how trying to find some urgently-needed information over the Net once took more than an hour and cost Rs 300. And, of course, there are times when a phone call has to be made, but someone is online. And with a single computer, people never can have enough time on it.
The participants are confident that the problems will eventually be sorted, and hope that similar projects will learn from the experience here. Despite these troubles, most people in Palung say the program is paying off-in most villages in Nepal, young people hang around a teashop, sharpening their carom skills, eyeing passers-by warily. In Palung, they are comfortable talking about themselves and their society to someone they have never met before, and that too from the capital.
The participants, more than half of who are female, said they felt empowered in ways young people here are not often-to discuss the issues the village needs to deal with. They like the fact that they have learnt computer skills they would have earlier had to move to the city to pick up, at some expense, and they're glad they can try and figure out how best to use these skills for their hometown, in their hometown. More than anything else, the youth leaders of Palung say, knowing their voice is out there in the world assures them that their town is important, and inspires them to do more for it.