Beyond Access:
Libraries Are the New Telecentres

Michael Gurstein

Editor in Chief: The Journal of Community Informatics, Vancouver, Canada.

As those who have been in and around community-based ICT/Internet access (community informatics) initiatives well know, the primary dilemma for these activities (e.g. Telecentres) is how to ensure sufficient sustainability, organizational stability and programmatic flexibility to allow for survival once the immediate round of funding, which helped them to launch, runs out. (Note that I've elsewhere discussed my thoughts on Next Generation Telecentres (NGTs) and Re-thinking Telecentres: A Community Informatics Approach, which outline what I see as the updated role for Telecentres or, as I discuss below, libraries.)

Contrary to earlier predictions and often intemperate assertions that the market would resolve all Internet access and use issues, the need for community-based Internet access facilities has not disappeared; neither in the Global South nor the Global North as a consequence of the "mobile revolution". Rather, what has happened as a result of the widespread distribution of mobiles is that the need for "access" has shifted to focus more particularly on those falling into the gaps in the overwhelmingly commercial and for-profit Internet environment: the poor, the illiterate and semi-illiterate, migrants and those with physical disabilities; in many instances a diminishing group as the cost of access declines, but not one that has or will disappear altogether.

And alongside this group there is the increasing number of people who require support and enablement in taking advantage of the access which has been made available: those requiring training, those requiring moral support in entering into an unfamiliar technological space and those with specific interests or needs achievable through the use of ICTs but who lack the knowledge or skill (and resources) to realize these effectively.

In the initial round of funding for public Internet access, both in the North and in the South, the challenge of sustainability was not, by and large, overcome; many, even most, Telecentres failed, and programs to support public Internet access were abandoned. This was in part due to a perceived decline in need (those who remained without Internet access often being socially "invisible" and economically and politically marginal), but also partly because the fashion among funders and policy makers shifted elsewhere (primarily to mobiles).

Notably, while the funding agencies-governments in the Global North, multilateral aid agencies and development-oriented foundations in the South-proved to be fickle in their support, many governments in the Global South, and particularly those with very large rural populations and very low levels of connectivity, have proven to have rather more staying power. A number of them-notably Pakistan, Indonesia and Bolivia among others-have recently launched or re-launched broad community-based ICT access and service delivery programs (very often focused on e-government services).

Even in the face of rapidly escalating mobile penetration, and statistics which, in theory, prove that the "access issue" has been solved through the (apparent) use of mobiles for Internet access, many countries have recognized the need for facilities offering public access to the Internet. This is particularly the case since the cost of Internet use among the very poor (who are disproportionately rural), the training challenges and the economic and social development opportunities involved indicate the need for something more than simply widespread mobile use or even commercial Internet Cafes if the true potential of the Internet is to be realized. A significant consideration in this, of course, being that large proportions of mobile users in the South either don't access the Internet via their mobiles because of cost or don't understand that they can access the net-Facebook for many evidently is not the Internet. As a result, they make no wider use of opportunities for Internet access.

Alongside these new governmental initiatives (only some of which have made provisions to avoid the difficulties experienced by earlier programs) it is heartening to discover a parallel initiative sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation which responds directly to the earlier failures while recognizing the continuing requirements, particularly in the Global South and in countries in transition for Internet access and "beyond".

This new initiative has taken the lessons learned at such cost from earlier programs and moved them forward in new and exciting ways. Even the program's name, Beyond Access, indicates the learnings on which the program appears to be built and gives evidence of the renewed spirit which is animating it. (My comments below are based on my having had the opportunity to participate in a regional meeting of Beyond Access in Bali in October, 2013.)

The program is built around competitive grants to individual libraries (or innovative elements in library systems). The funds support the innovation and there is a strong focus on regular regional meetings of the grantees with grantee teams including the library champion, a local NGO which is active in support of the access innovation and a local governmental policy maker. There is a strong emphasis in these meetings on skill development (related to project management) for the individual teams and in creating peer-to-peer links between teams and linking individual teams into a broad program-based social software supported (Facebook) network. There is also the strong indication that ongoing moral, programmatic and (ad hoc) financial support (the program has guaranteed funding for three years) will be available (from the core staff). This funding would support moving the individual initiatives forward, propagating the innovative practice/program to additional libraries in the region, and for new initiatives as they might be identified by grantees in their ongoing activities.

It might be worthwhile to list a few of the elements of the program which indicate what has been learned and how they have moved on from earlier initiatives:

1. Library-Based - the first and most important evident learning is their decision to use libraries as the base for broader Internet access and use programs. This approach, which many of those involved have long recommended, provides the local initiatives with an immediate ongoing organizational base for financial management, physical presence and access to skilled personnel; and perhaps most importantly gives it a framework which would allow for continuity and the potential for growth.

2. Ongoing Support - the program has indicated that it will provide ongoing support to the individual grantees, which is a direct response to the problem encountered by so many Telecentre programs where grants were given to people in the field and then the grantors effectively moved on to something else leaving the grantees without adequate training, mentoring, or the possibility of backstopping through ad hoc funding for emergency or bridging purposes.

3. Links to Policy - by including policy makers as part of the team invited to the regional events, the program is indicating a recognition of one of the failings of earlier programs which was the lack of any linkage in most instances into appropriate policy-making structures. This absence left the individual Telecentre without the necessary linkages to possible funders when the time came that additional funding was required. (Notably in many instances the earlier programs were sponsored out of Ministries of Telecommunications or Industry rather than Ministries which had an interest in on-going support for locally based social and economic development.)

4. Links to Local NGOs - similarly with local NGOs also being represented in the teams invited to the regional meetings. While in many instances Telecentres were closely linked to specific NGO programs, often these were NGOs developed specifically for the purpose of working with the Telecentre, and when funding or other issues arose in many instances these NGOs lacked the broad base of community support that was necessary to make an effective response.

5. Capacity for Innovation - a major failing of the earlier Telecentre programs was that the structure of funding was fixed so that the activities undertaken within the Telecentre were generally built into the funding contract and there was little or no flexibility available to allow the Telecentre to evolve or to respond to local requirements, opportunities, or difficulties. The Beyond Access program has indicated specifically that funding is available for new or enhanced programs or for the extension of existing programs to new locales. In fact the Workshop that I attended had a section devoted specifically to helping the teams identify, design and plan for the implementation of just such innovations!

6. Financial Continuity - as noted, the earlier programs had limited time and funding frames and generally suffered from a lack of secure continuity beyond the initial grant, reflecting the ways in which most government and donor funding is based on year-to-year budgets and program cycles. Beyond Access has indicated that they have a minimum of three-year funding and have extended the security that this provides to the individual grantees in the sense that they have indicated additional funding would be available as might be required to support the initiatives during the entire life of this first stage of the overall program.

7. Networking Peer-to-Peer - bizarrely many of the first round Telecentre programs not only did not promote peer-to-peer contacts and the creation of networks of mutual support among individual Telecentres, in many instances they actively resisted or undermined the creation of these networks (there was suspicion and fear that such networks might gain political influence and thus challenge bureaucratic and centralized policy management and decision-making). In contrast to this, Beyond Access is actively promoting and supporting the development of peer-to-peer relations among the individual initiatives and the creation of an overall network of initiatives for mutual support, idea and experience exchange, and so that they might become a basis for influencing ICT and Development policymaking. (The Workshop I participated in was organized at the same time and place as the 8th iteration of the Internet Governance Forum in Bali, Indonesia, precisely to help make this connection.)

Of course, my window on Beyond Access is a narrow and limited one and I have not had a chance to more closely observe its activities in relation to specific funded projects, but even with this limited perspective it was extremely heartening to see a resurgence of the grassroots energy and creativity that I last saw in the initial stage of the Telecentre movement being rekindled through the Beyond Access initiative. I have very considerable optimism for their activities, if only because they seem to be doing so many things right that were done wrongly in earlier programs.