The Impacts of Community Telecenters in Rural Colombia [1]

Fabiola Amariles

CIAT, Impact Assessment Project, Cali, Colombia


Olga P. Paz

Colnodo, Administration, Bogotá, Colombia


Nathan Russell

CIAT, Communications Unit, Cali, Colombia


Nancy Johnson

CIAT, Impact Assessment Project, Cali, Colombia




This paper evaluates the impacts of two community telecenters on their host organizations and on the rural areas they served. Awareness and use of telecenters by rural households were low, as was users’ ability to articulate information needs. Significant institutional impacts occurred in the NGOs that hosted the telecenters. The results suggest that sustainable expansion of ICTs in rural areas of developing countries may best be achieved by working through local organizations willing to incorporate the technologies into their work, while striving with the communities they serve to build local capacity to use information and ICTs.  


Se  evalúa el impacto de dos telecentros comunitarios en las organizaciones que los acogieron y en las áreas rurales a las que prestan sus servicios. El uso de los telecentros por parte de los campesinos es bajo, como lo es su habilidad para articular las necesidades de información. Ocurrieron impactos institucionales significativos en las ONGs que alojaron los telecentros. Los resultados sugieren que la mejor manera de lograr la expansión sostenible de las TICs en las áreas rurales de los países en desarrollo podría ser por medio de organizaciones locales que quieran incorporar las tecnologías ellas mismas y también trabajar con las comunidades a las cuales sirven, para construir capacidad local para el uso de la información y de las TICs.



Over the last decade or so, many organizations and individuals have come to see the new information and communications technologies (ICTs) as potentially powerful tools for helping achieve sustainable development in countries of the South. After an intense, exploratory phase, it is important now for organizations promoting the spread of these technologies to measure their impact in improving livelihoods, particularly in rural communities where access to the new ICTs has so far been limited. Two obvious questions are whether rural people adopt such technologies and whether they can successfully incorporate them into personal and community development.

One of the main vehicles for introducing ICTs in rural areas, especially in Latin America, has been the community telecenter. Definitions of this term abound in the literature, but for the purposes of this study, we refer to them as public spaces where a community can use ICTs to implement social development programs, support the social and personal development of the individuals and communities they serve, and contribute to improving the quality of life of people (Menou et al., 2004).  Thus, in contrast to the cybercafes that have proliferated in cities and towns, which are essentially small businesses offering ICT access, community telecenters have a mainly social purpose and are generally established by organizations committed to building local capacity for ICT use in development.   

This paper presents the findings of an impact evaluation of two rural community telecenters set up in southwestern Colombia under a 3-year project called InforCauca, which was funded by Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and the Rockefeller Foundation in the USA. InforCauca’s goal was to test community telecenters as an appropriate means for building local capacity to obtain and use information relevant to economic development and sustainable management of natural resources in a marginalized region. The project strongly emphasized evaluating and enhancing telecenter impacts.

At the outset of the project, it was expected that impact would result largely from decisions and actions taken by individual telecenter users based on information obtained via ICTs. As the project progressed, however, it became evident that the most notable changes were occurring within the organizations hosting the telecenters, as a result of InforCauca’s strong capacity building program. In light of this pattern, the impact study focused initially on telecenter users and rural households within an economics of information framework (Akerlof, 1970; Riley, 2001; Rothschild & Stiglitz, 1976; Stiglitz, 1997).  But it was further expanded to include an assessment of institutional changes attributable to InforCauca in two organizations hosting rural telecenters: the Asociación de Cabildos Indígenas del Norte de Cauca (ACIN) [2] and the Corporación para el Desarrollo de Tunía (CorpoTunía) [3]

Under the expanded strategy for evaluating telecenter impacts, two approaches were employed. First, surveys were designed to characterize telecenter uses and users and to examine how individuals employ ICTs and other technologies to satisfy their diverse information and communication needs. Special attention was given to the role of the Internet within broader patterns of communication and to the implications for telecenter impacts. Second, an organizational impact study was conducted to identify changes in the organization in terms of effectiveness (ability to reach its goals), efficiency (use of available resources), relevance to stakeholders, and sustainability (financial health).

Assessing the Impact of ICTs

The evaluation of ICT impacts has gained particular importance in light of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), whose first part was held in December 2003 at Geneva, Switzerland and the second part in November 2005 in Tunisia. The ICT for Development Platform [4], an exhibition and forum organized in conjunction with the WSIS by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and the Global Knowledge Partnership (GKP), shared the experience gained and lessons learned from many ICT-for-development initiatives around the world. Through this open forum, three areas for immediate action were defined: first, the integration of ICTs systematically into poverty reduction strategies; second, the need to move beyond small pilot projects to nationwide or even regional implementation of ICT programs; and third, the creation of new types of partnerships involving all major stakeholders – government, civil society, and the private sector.

Against this background of heightened expectations, it is important that ongoing and new initiatives on ICTs for development do a thorough job of assessing impact to give donors, partners, and other stakeholders a clear idea of what they can reasonably expect from the use of ICTs on a massive scale in poor communities. Despite the clear need for impact assessment, though, little empirical evidence is available about the impacts of telecenters in the lives of users.

Some studies have measured the use of telecenters and observed that it is highest among younger and more educated community members (Kyabwe and Kibombo, 1999). Women and the poor tend to be underserved (Karelse and Sylla, 2000; Rathgeber, 2000; Hafkin, 2002; ACACIA Project [5]). Other researchers have identified aspects of the location and design of telecenters that influence who does or does not use their services (Kyabwe and Kibombo, 1999; Baron, 1999; Harris, 1999; Cisler et al., 1999). These findings suggest that telecenters are not being used by marginalized populations and therefore have only limited direct impact on poverty. The study results tell us little, however, about why telecenter use is limited. Are there serious obstacles to access, or is demand for telecenter services limited? 

Several studies document the high costs of telecenter establishment and operation (Benjamin and Dahms, 1999; Delgadillo and Borja, 1999) and the consequent high cost of services to users. These findings have clear implications for sustainability and poverty impact. However, without comparable estimates of the nature and magnitude of the benefits obtained from telecenters, we cannot conclude whether or not they are a worthwhile investment for donors and users.

Many telecenters, especially when they are dependent on donor funding, fail to become sustainable. Those operating as cybercafes may show positive cash flow within the first few months of business (, 2004). Telecenters may also generate significant social benefits, particularly if they have clear objectives and strong institutional frameworks, enabling community members to acquire computer skills, increase their employability, and gain access to markets (Batchelor et al., 2003). Much anecdotal evidence suggests that ICT projects can be especially beneficial if they are closely linked to other initiatives aimed at improving livelihoods.

Other attempts to measure the development impacts of telecenters have produced inventories of best practices for applying ICTs. Such studies report telecenter experiences, describing how ICTs were applied and judging whether the initiative complied with pre-established criteria for relevance to development and poverty reduction. 

In 2002 the International Institute for Communication and Development (IICD) in The Netherlands and in South Africa began conducting a series of case studies of projects on ICTs and development to learn from the experience of successful initiatives that used ICTs to promote socioeconomic development. Through a simple but structured format, the case studies examined whether and how the initiatives made a significant impact at the local level, based on a set of basic best-practice guidelines, called the “Seven Habits of Highly Effective ICT-Enabled Development Initiatives.” The case studies were expected to provide information about effective uses of ICTs for development and also to constitute a source of ICT-for-development stories that over time might reveal patterns of best practice [6]. 

The Global Knowledge Partnership (GKP, 2003) has compiled a series of case studies on ICTs for poverty reduction in Asia. Each describes a particular application of ICTs and covers issues such as targeting the poor, outreach, expandability or replicability, and sustainability. The document highlights the distinction between “development” and “poverty reduction,” organizing the case studies around the categories of the Millennium Development Goals.

Several authors have offered opinions about what exactly needs to be measured to determine the impact of telecenters on development. Daly (1999) states that in order to measure the impacts of the Internet in the developing world, factors such as penetration, utilization, and effects arising from utilization need to be analyzed. Gomez et al. (2001) present a social vision of ICTs for development, emphasizing equitable access, meaningful use, and social appropriation of ICT resources, together with enabling environments and minimizing risks and threats. Mathison (GKP, 2003) stresses that projects need to demonstrate an absence of negative social impacts. Another issue is the extent to which the use of ICTs offers projects some competitive advantage, compared with those having similar goals but that do not employ ICTs in the same way. 

Rigorous impact analysis must go beyond those considerations, however, to assess where and how the impact of community telecenters is happening. Daly (1999) recommends that evaluations of ICT impacts focus first on individuals and then seek impacts on groups and organizations, such as businesses, schools, and health centers. Gomez (2001) defines four levels at which ICT use can have a positive or negative impact: (1) on people, individually or collectively; (2) on organizations, whether private, public, or civil; (3) on countries; and (4) on the region or world, i.e., beyond national borders. At each of these levels, the needs, questions, and evaluation methods are different.

Though various studies have reported ICT impacts within communities, little has been written about their impacts specifically on organizations. Whyte (1999) recognizes the importance of measuring changes in organizations, given their relevance to the development and life of communities. She suggests that in telecenter evaluations special attention should be given to schools, chambers of commerce, and health clinics as well as community organizations, NGOs, and committees that have some formal structure and mandate. Whyte further notes that “information and communication are critical to the success of any formal organization so that savings in time and money, together with better performance and reliability, are key questions for the evaluation” (Whyte, 1999, p. 288). The impacts of ICTs, she says, will thus “relate to the efficiency of the organization, the outcomes it achieves, its decision-making processes and the decisions made, as well as how effective its networking and information sources are for reaching its organizational goals.”

Recent developments in the evaluation of organizational capacity building offer some guidance as to how we can examine the organizational impacts of ICTs. An important trend in this work is the move away from analysis of project outputs (i.e., products and services offered by external agents to passive recipients) to the observation of changes in the behavior and performance of people and organizations.

The International Service for National Agricultural Research (ISNAR) contributed importantly to this shift by devising novel methods for evaluating capacity development programs in agricultural R&D organizations (Horton et al., 2000; Horton et al. 2003). The conceptual framework for this evaluation drew on an organizational assessment methodology developed by Universalia and IDRC and on the underlying “theory of action” of the ISNAR project on participatory monitoring and evaluation. The Universalia-IDRC framework views an organization’s performance as a function of its operational environment (the legal, social, and economic context), its motivation (internal factors that influence the direction, coherence of activities, and energy displayed), and its capacity (the organization’s staffing, resources, structure, management systems, and linkages with others). Organizational performance is defined in terms of effectiveness, efficiency, relevance to stakeholders, and sustainability. A key lesson of these studies was that to assess the outcomes of capacity development one must examine changes in the behavior and performance of individuals within organizations, since it is their learning process or acquisition of new knowledge and skills that gives rise to organizational change.

Within the framework described above, this study conducted an institutional analysis of the telecenters supported by the InforCauca Project. The analysis was prompted by project staff’s observation that, apart from benefits for surrounding communities, the telecenters were having a profound effect on capacity development [7] within the organizations hosting the telecenters. The aim of this analysis was to measure the extent to which improved capacity (the result of ICT access, training, and the adoption of new ways of working) was having an impact on the organizations’ performance. The results presented here suggest that, where the telecenter is thoroughly embedded within its host organization, significant impacts can be achieved through the organization’s activities. A further challenge is to measure the impact of these strengthened organizations on the communities they serve.

The Inforcauca Project [8]

The project’s central aim was to develop appropriate telecenter models for building the capacity of individuals and organizations in marginalized regions to benefit from information related to food security, social and economic development, and natural resource management. InforCauca was implemented by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT, its Spanish acronym) and the Universidad Autónoma de Occidente (UAO) in partnership with several community organizations, which were responsible for managing the telecenters. 

The project established and supported two telecenters in rural areas as well as one urban telecenter [9]. One of the rural community telecenters was managed by ACIN in northern Cauca Department, while the other was run, at least initially, by a consortium of local organizations. After several attempts to establish this second telecenter in different locations, such as a local technical school and the town cultural center, it was placed at CorpoTunía, a not-for-profit NGO dedicated to promoting agricultural as well as social and cultural development through participatory approaches in various municipalities of central Cauca.

InforCauca’s search for appropriate models of telecenter development proved to be a process of trial and error, in which project staff and local partners first had to set aside many preconceived ideas and expectations. Eventually, however, they were able to define a role for each telecenter that matched the needs and circumstances of the host organizations and their communities. Thus, the ACIN telecenter came to play a central part in this organization’s struggle to defend indigenous communities and leaders against human rights violations. It also supported the work of ACIN’s various development programs, which deal with such issues as rural planning, agriculture, health, and indigenous women. The CorpoTunía telecenter, meanwhile, complemented the organization’s community development programs, particularly those aimed at strengthening small agro-enterprises.

In supporting these telecenters, the InforCauca Project focused on strengthening the capacity of individuals and local organizations to access, use, create, and exchange information. Its capacity building program ranged from basic training in computer programs to more intensive instruction in Web site development, project development, and the use of conventional communications media in conjunction with telecenter services. The project’s strong support, together with a high level of commitment on the part of telecenter operators and host organizations, were key for generating impact and for making progress toward achieving telecenter sustainability.

Results of the Analysis of Impact on Individuals and Communities

Data and Methods

The central hypothesis of the InforCauca impact study was that through telecenters individuals would obtain information that could help them make better decisions. Our first objective, therefore, was to document the types of information people were obtaining through the telecenters. Second, we wanted to link the information obtained to changes in decision making, in livelihood strategies, and ultimately, in people’s welfare. A final objective was to determine who were and, perhaps more importantly, who were not using the telecenters, with the aim of devising strategies to reach a broader audience.

Obviously, to assess the impact of decision making and human welfare is a long-term undertaking that involves comparing the situation before the telecenters’ establishment with that afterwards. For this purpose we opted for a dual strategy of gathering information directly from telecenter users and from a random sample of households in the telecenters’ target areas. The idea was that information on users would provide early evidence on uses and users, while data from the communities would enable us to examine the magnitude and distribution of impacts.


Results of the telecenter early users survey

To document how people were using the telecenters, user surveys were conducted at both telecenters in late 2001. During a one-month period, a sample of users was asked to fill out a form requesting (1) demographic information; (2) information about the services used, the type of information sought, and use of other communications media in addition to the Internet; and (3) an evaluation of the quality of the service. A total of 39 surveys were obtained, 20 from CorpoTunía and 19 from ACIN.

The main purpose of this study was to characterize telecenter uses and users. It examined how people draw on the Internet as well as other information sources (including letters, telephone, radio, television, newspapers, and magazines) to meet their diverse needs. The idea was to determine how ICTs fit within a broader pattern of media use and to identify potential implications for telecenter impact.

According to the results, early users tended to be fairly young and well educated; their average age was 28, and 97% had completed secondary education. At CorpoTunía and ACIN, over half of telecenter users also had post-secondary education, and over 20% were professionals. Thus, telecenter users were not representative of the general population but rather constituted a relatively elite group fitting the typical profile of “early technology adopters.”

Users visited the telecenters, on average, four times per month, with no variation across locations or sex of user. At CorpoTunía the most common reason for visiting the telecenter on the day of the survey was related to school, while at ACIN it was for work. There were no differences between men and women in ranking the quality or availability of services.

Telecenter users reported using a range of communications media and information sources, including meetings and letters and print media as well as the telephone, radio, and Internet. With few exceptions, use levels were high (>70%) across all media and telecenter locations. To see how uses of different communications media were related, we calculated correlations between the use of one option and that of another. The results showed that in nearly all cases the use of one medium was either unrelated or slightly positively correlated with the use of other media.

Different information sources or communications media appear to complement rather than substitute for one other. To determine whether this complementarity is based on the use of different media for different types of information or communication, we grouped the information obtained from ICTs and other sources into four categories: (1) family communication, (2) general information, (3) personal development, and (4) specialized information. On average, users obtained general news and information from 4.4 types of media, and information for personal development from 2.8. Family communication depended on 1.7 different media, and specialized information was obtained from 1.2 types. In general, people used a single source to obtain different types of information (Table 1).  Though the Internet was used for a variety of purposes, interestingly, it was the most commonly used source of information for personal development, suggesting that it fills an obvious information gap.

Table 1: Type of information obtained by telecenter users, by source


      Type of information


Family communication 

General information

Personal development information

Specialized information


% of users of the ICT

Telephone (n=33)





Radio (n=32)





Newspaper/magazine (n=29)





Television (n=39)





Internet (n=30)





Flyers (n=36)





Community meetings (n=33)






Significantly for R&D organizations, only about 17% of users used the Internet to obtain specialized information related to decisions or activities of economic importance. But then only 38% obtained this information from any formal source, and the figure is 24% if we exclude direct personal contacts via telephone and community meetings.       

What are the implications of these findings for community telecenter development?  Obviously, if telecenters are to have an economic impact in people’s lives, we need to know why so few telecenter users search for specialized information on the Internet or through other formal communications media. Is such information simply not available, or if it is, do users have little faith in its veracity?

Are they getting this type of information mainly through family or personal communications in which they have more confidence? Clearly, there are important challenges in boosting the overall number of telecenter users and expanding the uses of Internet, which does, after all, offer the advantage of being a resource with multiple purposes.

Results of the baseline survey of the community served by the CorpoTunía telecenter 

To begin characterizing and assessing the magnitude of the impacts of telecenter use, a baseline survey was carried out during late 2002 and early 2003 in communities near the telecenter operated by CorpoTunía. A sample of 445 individuals was selected, 48% in Tunía and 52% in the surrounding rural area. The specific objectives were to document the extent of telecenter awareness and use in the community, to identify any changes in the pool of telecenter users (in relation to results from the user survey), and particularly to compare users with nonusers. The survey also allowed us to examine broader information and communication patterns in the community. A baseline survey was conducted only in the area of influence of the telecenter at CorpoTunía, since it is the only one that is open to the general public and is intended to serve the community directly.

Nearly two years after the initial user surveys were conducted, follow-up focus groups were held with users of all three telecenters to get a better sense of how the telecenters were affecting users’ lives. The idea was to gather qualitative information to complement the quantitative surveys. 

According to the results of the baseline survey, awareness and use of the CorpoTunía telecenter was relatively limited. Only 25% of the urban population of about 2,000 had visited the telecenter, though just over half had heard about it. The figure is far lower for the surrounding rural area, where only 8% of the respondents had even heard of the telecenter at Tunía. Because of the extremely low use of telecenters in rural areas and because the urban and rural respondents differ significantly on many, if not most, socioeconomic, demographic, and information-related variables, it is valid to compare users and nonusers only within the town of Tunía.

Table 2. Characteristics of telecenter users and nonusers in Tunía



(n = 53)


(n = 160)

Average age***



Percentage who are women



Average number of years of education***



Community group participation



Percentage living in their own home



Well-being indices+



Index of access to public services (e.g., electricity, running water, and trash collection) ***



Index of access to health services (social security and local health center)***



Own domestic appliances (refrigerator, TV, blender, and gas/electric stove)***



Index of transportation (car, motorcycle, and bicycle) **



Index of access to education (primary and secondary school) ***



Index of unsatisfied basic needs (sum of indices of health, education, public services, and home ownership)***



** = Differences among telecenters are significant at  p ≤ 0.05.

*** = Differences among users are significant at  p ≤ 0.01

+ Indices are weighted averages of access to the goods or services in parentheses. Each component is weighted by the inverse of the frequency of which it appears, i.e., the rarer it is, the more it counts in the index. Indices go from 0 (lowest) to 1 (highest).


Telecenter users were not as educated as the elite early adopters surveyed a year before, suggesting that the user pool had broadened somewhat (Table 2). Yet, telecenter users were still significantly better educated than nonusers, and they were also better off in terms of material well-being (i.e., access to electrical appliances, public services, and so forth).

In addition, telecenter users were more likely to use and spend significantly more money on other communications media. Users and nonusers did not differ, however, with regard to gender or participation in community activities. Users and nonusers of the telecenter differed significantly in terms of their use of other sources of information and means of communication (Table 3). Telecenter users were more likely to use the telephone, television, Internet, newspapers, regular mail, and pamphlets than were nonusers. The Internet complemented other information sources and appeared to widen the divide between those who have access to information and those who do not.

Table 3. Use of information sources and communications media in Tunía

Percentage of respondents who use:





















Community meetings



Regular Mail**



*** Significant at < = 0.01 ** < = 0.05  * < = 0.10.


Many, but not all, of the differences between users and nonusers of the telecenter also applied for users and nonusers of the Internet (Table 4). Men were more likely to use the Internet than women, and Internet users participated more in community groups than did nonusers. Users were generally better off than nonusers, but the differences were not as great as for telecenter users in general. The two groups did not differ in terms of possession of household appliances, and the differences in access to health services and transportation were less marked. Again, Internet users were more likely to use other sources of information and means of communication than were nonusers of Internet.

Table 4. Internet users and nonusers in Tunía


Users (n=39)

Non Users (n=174)

Average age***



Percentage who are women***



Average number of years of education***



Community group participation ***



Percentage who are homeowners






Well-being indices+



Index of access to public services (e.g., electricity, running water, and trash collection) ***



Index of access to health services (social security and local health center)*



Own domestic appliances (refrigerator, TV, blender, and gas/electric stove)



Index of transportation (car, motorcycle, bicycle) **



Index of access to education (primary and secondary school) ***



Index of unsatisfied basic needs (sum of indices of health, education, public services, and home ownership)***



** = Differences among telecenters are significant at  p ≤ 0.05 

*** = Differences among telecenters are significant at  p ≤ 0.01

+Indices are weighted averages of access to the goods or services in parentheses. Each component is weighted by the inverse of the frequency of which it appears, i.e., the rarer it is, the more it counts in the index. Indices go from 0 (lowest) to 1 (highest)


With respect to use of the Internet for seeking economically important information, little had changed from the user survey made in 2001. In the case of farmers, for example, more than half of those included in the community survey, even the few who had used the telecenter, said they got such information from informal sources, chiefly other farmers. Thirty-one percent relied on formal sources, such as extension agents, agrochemical company representatives, and printed pamphlets.

The limited importance of the Internet as a source of specialized information could relate to availability and confidence, as suggested in the discussion above of telecenter user survey results. The baseline community survey points to still another possible explanation. When asked what information might be useful to them in their work, farmers referred generally to technical assistance, training, and other topics, but only 21% were able to identify at least one concrete information need (Table 5). In contrast, 34% of the students and all of the teachers were able to identify such needs.

Table 5. Percentage of respondents who identified concrete information needs


















These findings are consistent with the predominance of students and teachers among telecenter users. Teachers in particular are willing to pay for Internet use, because they evidently know exactly what information they need and can readily obtain it through the Internet. If community telecenters are to become equally effective as a source of information for farmers and other actors in rural development, then the needs of these people must be defined more concretely, and more must be done to identify or create reliable information sources that are genuinely useful to them. This is consistent with the growing recognition that policies that seek to use ICTs to promote pro-poor development must not only provide access to ICTs but also build skills that permit their effective use (Gurstein, 2003)

Focus group discussions

The outcomes of the focus group discussions with telecenter users essentially reinforced patterns that are evident from the user and community surveys. Users tended to be younger and better educated than nonusers. And they frequented the telecenter mainly for computer training, to obtain general information (related to school assignments or availability of scholarships, for example), or to communicate with friends and relatives. Cases of individuals obtaining technical or economic information for use in development-related decisions were scarce.

Even so, the few such cases that exist can be quite instructive. Members of a local association of flower producers, for example, have received training in basic computer software at the telecenter in Tunía. With a view to identifying the requirements for breaking into export markets, a CorpoTunía agronomist helped them consult the Web sites of other associations. The group determined that, in order to export their flowers, they would need to improve their infrastructure, meet new demands in terms of product volume and quality, obtain credit, and so forth. Thus, access to information has enabled the group to clarify its vision for the future and to identify specific needs. However, they would not have been able to form that vision without technical support from CorpoTunía, and the information alone obviously will not enable the group to realize their vision.

When asked about their own perceptions of the telecenter’s impact, 83% of telecenter users (and 66% of nonusers) said it had generated benefits. The predominant telecenter uses – helping children do homework assignments and keeping in touch with friends and relatives – may seem superficial in terms of rural development. Even so, they represent important gains for the townspeople, resulting in significant savings in time and money – a point stressed by many focus group participants.

Moreover, these telecenter uses are feeding the community’s hope for a better future. The telecenter is fulfilling many people’s desire to learn and to be connected with the wider world. The parents of young telecenter users express high expectations that, by learning to use ICTs, their children will gain new opportunities for education and advancement. With continuing support from CorpoTunía, the experience of these early telecenter users should provide a solid foundation for further ICT applications that contribute more directly to the achievement of sustainable rural livelihoods.

Results of the Analysis of Organizational Impacts

As mentioned earlier, it was expected at the outset of the InforCauca Project that impact would come largely from the use of telecenter services by individuals in rural communities, who would derive economic benefits from information obtained through the use of new ICTs. As the project advanced, however, it became evident that more important changes were taking place within the organizations hosting the telecenters.

For that reason a method for evaluating organizational performance, developed by IDRC and Universalia of Canada (Lusthaus et al., 1995) was incorporated into the impact assessment. The purpose of this method is to gauge the extent to which a project is having an impact on collaborating organizations at different levels.

Structured interviews, designed according to the Short Guide for Institutional Assessment (Lusthaus et al., 1995) provided by IDRC and Universalia, were conducted with key staff in the two organizations hosting rural community telecenters:  ACIN (11 employees) and CorpoTunía (7 employees). The interviews were complemented by a review of documents (including Web sites and internal reports) that provided evidence of important changes in the organizations. The interview questions focused on three key factors that influence organizational performance: (1) motivation, (2) institutional capacity, and (3) environment. Based on interview results, a qualitative analysis was conducted to establish the cumulative effect of changes in those three factors on the overall performance of the telecenter host organizations in terms of their effectiveness (in reaching goals), efficiency (in using the available resources), and viability (i.e., financial health).

The telecenter at ACIN

The ACIN telecenter was established in 2000 at one of the association’s offices in Santander de Quilichao. It is available only to ACIN staff and to leaders and other members of the indigenous communities supported by the Association. The telecenter has two computers with Internet connection (via telephone), two Quickcams, a printer, and scanner. Two local coordinators provide training and orientation in the use of ICTs and other services, such as help in preparing promotional and instructional materials. The most common uses of the telecenter at ACIN are e-mail access, preparing and scanning documents, and consulting and developing Web sites.

With respect to motivation, ACIN staff felt that the telecenter had prompted them in various ways to do a better job of fulfilling the organization’s mission. First, by learning through the Internet about the experiences of others, particularly those working with indigenous people in the Americas, ACIN staff gained a heightened awareness of the overall significance of their work. This change, in turn, reinforced ACIN’s commitment to strengthening indigenous traditions and to working toward that goal through improved support programs and organizational processes. Moreover, better access to information on a wide range of topics provided ACIN with a stronger foundation for collective decisions about the association’s activities.

Naturally, it took time for these changes to emerge. In fact, at the outset of InforCauca, some indigenous leaders expressed concern that new ICTs would do more harm than good. Their quite legitimate fears ranged from issues of personal safety and cultural pollution to questions of intellectual property and possibly negative implications for the Paez (indigenous) people’s oral tradition of communication, which is a central element in their collective mode of decision making. Indigenous leaders’ reservations gradually diminished however, as they realized that, through appropriate capacity building and leadership, ICTs could help rather than harm ACIN and the communities it supports. The leadership issue was resolved in late 2002 through the creation of a Communications Council, which provides a formal framework for decisions about the telecenter as well as community radio programs and other communications activities.

In terms of institutional capacity, the telecenter has contributed importantly to the personal and professional development of ACIN staff. They have received training in topics ranging from the use of ICTs to project proposal writing, and some have learned about and taken advantage of opportunities to attend international workshops. ACIN staff remarked that new computer skills have improved their efficiency in the organization and in other activities, such as teaching.

The telecenter operators have provided valuable leadership in using the telecenter to build institutional capacity, a point noted by most of the ACIN staff interviewed. Beyond simply training others in the use of ICTs, the operators have aided the search for information that is useful in ACIN’s day-to-day work. The Association’s Education and Planning Programs have also played an active role in this task.

In addition to improving information availability within ACIN, the telecenter operators have enhanced the Association’s capacity to communicate with some of the more remote indigenous reserves by linking ICTs in practical ways with the use of conventional communications media, especially radio. Under a system that ACIN staff call “chivanet,” the telecenter operators copy documents, such as e-mails and files from Web sites, onto diskettes and deliver these to the driver of a rugged rural bus called a chiva, which travels daily to the remote reserves. The driver delivers the diskettes to the radio operators, who then convey messages and incorporate information from the Web into their radio programming, thus keeping the communities that ACIN serves better informed about developments locally and elsewhere that are pertinent to them.

In some ways the telecenter has better enabled women in particular to play a more active role in ACIN and in the indigenous communities generally. This was an outcome of the telecenter’s strong support for the Association’s Indigenous Women’s Program in obtaining and disseminating information about women’s rights and the use of gender analysis methods. One result is that gender indicators have been incorporated into the land-use planning of indigenous reserves in five different municipalities. Another is that the criteria for filling leadership positions in ACIN now include candidates’ respect for women and commitment to families. Moreover, women are perceived to play a more active role in decision-making through stronger participation in community meetings.

A rather dramatic illustration of how ACIN staff has put their new capacities to work emerged several years ago, when the intensification of fighting between guerillas and paramilitaries in northern Cauca resulted in gross human rights abuses against the Paez people. This included the assassination of indigenous leaders and massacres in remote Paez communities. In response, the telecenter operators began sending digital images of missing persons to human rights organizations, in addition to using these to make printed notices for distribution by family members of the desaparecidos. With assistance from CIAT, ACIN also developed a media list and began sending communiqués about the human rights abuses to the press and human rights organizations.

Eventually, ACIN and other indigenous associations in the region organized a massive human rights march, in which 35,000 people participated. On this occasion the telecenter proved vital in handling logistics as well as communication with the media and other organizations.

By heightening motivation and enhancing institutional capacity, the telecenter has had a profound effect on the internal working environment at ACIN. But it has had an equally important impact on the way the Association deals with its external context. Better communication with donors and collaborators has made them more aware of ACIN’s work “We’ve made ourselves better known to the rest of the world”, as one person put it. “Now we have greater credibility with other organizations,” said another. Staff noted that ACIN’s attractive Web site has contributed importantly to those ends.

Better public awareness has led to a marked expansion in ACIN’s links with other organizations, especially donors, within Colombia and around the world. Each of the Association’s programs – health, education, and so forth – has widened its contacts with agencies that can provide information and other support. ACIN staff are now more knowledgeable about the opportunities available through such contacts, and they are more adept at developing projects in collaboration with their new partners.

In summary, the telecenter has come to serve as a kind of communications unit for ACIN, helping improve its efficiency and effectiveness in developing projects, organizing events, and providing services in support of indigenous communities. These accomplishments have made ACIN a pioneer in the use of ICTs in Colombia and an important source of lessons learned for other indigenous people’s associations. A key question now is whether ACIN can sustain this process. With respect to the financial side of that question, the telecenter has generated some savings for ACIN but also significant costs, particularly for Internet and phone service. Since the conclusion of the InforCauca Project in mid-2003, the Association’s management has incorporated those costs into its standard operational budget. But ACIN was able to do that only because the telecenter had achieved a kind of social sustainability: that is, it had become such a vital part of the association’s support for the social development of the indigenous communities, that both staff and indigenous leaders considered it indispensable.

The telecenter at CorpoTunía

Unlike ACIN, CorpoTunía had already begun using the Internet before the InforCauca Project began. Nonetheless, staff and management tended to view this largely as being for secretarial functions. Not until CorpoTunía came to host the telecenter did all staff begin to acquire and apply ICT skills in their work. Once CorpoTunía staff realized that hosting the telecenter added a new and important dimension to their work, it then made sense for the organization’s own staff to join the early adopters of this new technology. In addition to serving CorpoTunía the telecenter is open to the general public, whose main uses of telecenter services include accessing e-mail, preparing and scanning documents, and conducting Web searchers.

The telecenter’s primary impact in terms of the motivation of CorpoTunía staff has been to broaden their field of action, enabling them to incorporate the use of ICTs into their work on agro-enterprise development, rural education, and other topics. The telecenter has thus given the organization an entirely new focal point for project development – a task in which CorpoTunía has been remarkably successful. The new projects, in turn, have provided staff with innovative ways to reach rural communities and thus fulfill their development mission. As a result, they have come to see the telecenter as a potential source of broad social benefits while at the same time opening up new opportunities for local organizations through improved communication. As a result of this experience, CorpoTunía’s manager has became a strong proponent of ICT use in the region, “selling the idea to everybody,” as he puts it. Partly as a result of his efforts, other community telecenters have been set up in a neighboring municipality.

In addition to motivating CorpoTunía to widen its development vision, the telecenter has helped it build the necessary capacities for realizing that vision. As at ACIN, this is particularly evident in the telecenter operators and other staff who have acquired valuable skills. One commented for example, that she used the Web to prepare for meetings and that this better enabled her to debate issues and participate in decision making. With regard to agriculture, technicians working for CorpoTunía described how they were able to obtain technical information from the Web that proved useful in their extension activities with farmers. This is particularly important for the majority who are para-professional extension agents possessing only a high school education.

Greater openness to new opportunities and improved communication with donors through the Internet has helped CorpoTunía develop new projects. As part of one of these, Colombian students have exchanged information about their lives and aspirations via Internet with students in Spain and other countries with the goal of contributing to a larger effort to combat prejudice in Spain against immigrants from Latin America and North Africa. Projects like this one, in turn, have allowed CorpoTunía to form new institutional alliances around a shared interest in the use of ICTs for rural development.

According to some of the CorpoTunía staff interviewed, the telecenter has exerted a positive influence on women in the organization, contributing to their professional advancement and helping them establish new contacts. All of the telecenter operators have been women, and they have benefited particularly from the InforCauca Project’s capacity-building efforts.

By adding a new dimension to CorpoTunía’s work, the telecenter has dramatically changed the way the organization is viewed and operates in its external environment. CorpoTunía projects a stronger image to other organizations, through its well-organized Web site as well as through its new projects and other actions. The manager of CorpoTunía actively shares his organization’s experience with ICTs for example, through the National Confederation of NGOs and the Board of Directors of the Cauca Regional Center for Innovation and Productivity (CREPIC). For those reasons and because of its success in developing ICT-related projects, CorpoTunía is now viewed locally and within national organizations (including Colombia’s Ministry of Communications) as a pioneer and leader in the use of ICTs for rural development in Cauca. As with other telecenter experiences, strong leadership (that is, the presence of a telecenter “champion”) has proved to be a critical factor in this success.

In contrast with developments at ACIN, the telecenter at CorpoTunía has not come to serve strictly as an organizational communications unit. Rather, it has motivated and enabled CorpoTunía leaders and staff to incorporate the use of ICTs into their development work, and this is reflected in the way they provide services and in the types of projects they develop. Quite apart from its benefits for CorpoTunía, however, the telecenter also caters to other organizations and individuals in the local community.

As with ACIN, the question of financial and social sustainability is critical for the telecenter at CorpoTunía. Because this telecenter is open to the general public, it generates income through the sale of services. Even so, it also relies heavily on support from CorpoTunía, particularly to provide capable telecenter operators. The organization is willing to assume the costs of the telecenter, even subsidizing its use by the general public, because it has come to see the telecenter as an essential component of its community service and project development efforts.

Some Conclusions About Telecenter Impacts

What lessons can be drawn from the results presented here on telecenter impacts in organizations and among users in rural communities? Or to pose the question in a different way, what can rural people reasonably expect from a community telecenter?

Based on the results of our analysis of impacts among telecenter users and in local communities, one might conclude that these people, particularly the poorest among them, have little to gain directly from telecenter services. The telecenters reported in this study cater mainly to relatively well-educated individuals in local schools and organizations, and these people’s use of ICTs merely complements their already good access to other communications media.

In contrast, small farmers and other less privileged members of the community apparently face formidable cultural and other barriers to effective use of telecenter services. Many farmers appear not to have easy access to telecenters or do not feel inclined to visit them; and if they do visit, they do not necessarily have a concrete idea of their information needs. Moreover, even if they find information on the Internet that is relevant to their work, this may not possess the confidence needed to translate that information into knowledge through experimentation, leading to effective action aimed at solving a specific problem or seizing a new opportunity. So, it would seem that the telecenter (particularly if operated essentially as a cybercafe) may actually tend to widen rather than reduce the gap between the community’s elite and the marginalized sectors.

Nonetheless, in the hands of a socially committed local organization with imaginative leadership, community telecenters can give rise to significant impacts in terms of enhanced organizational performance. And presumably, more efficient and effective organizations will do a better job of helping rural communities develop new sources of income, educate their children, defend their human rights, and address other important aspects of sustainable livelihoods. Moreover, if the organizations perceive obvious benefits from the telecenter, they will be more likely to pay the financial costs of maintaining it.

Thus, we should perhaps view community telecenters, in the first instance, as a means of strengthening local organizations and not just as a way to make useful information more readily available to individuals. An important question, though, is to what extent the institutional impacts observed in the two telecenter host organizations covered by this study can also be achieved in other local organizations that use ICTs but are not necessarily engaged in offering those services to the public through a community telecenter. CorpoTunía has examined this question through a project aimed at identifying, training, and supporting gestores de comunicación, (communications managers) in local organizations, such as farmer associations, women’s organizations, and local committees. The project has come to a close, but the results have not yet been published except in a project report provided to the donor.

Assuming the study shows that organizations using community telecenters can derive some benefits from their use of ICTs, do such benefits provide a strong enough justification for the establishment of community telecenters on a massive scale in developing countries? In other words, if all we can reasonably expect from telecenters, in terms of development impact, is more effective local organizations, is this sufficient to fulfill the high expectations created by the global telecenter movement? Probably not, unless community telecenters are accompanied by other interventions, involving the use of various conventional media and aimed at creating bridges between telecenters and the remote or reluctant but potential users of information sources to which the telecenter can provide easier access. ACIN’s chivanet system is one example of how this can be accomplished. CIAT, in collaboration with CorpoTunía and other Colombian partners is examining another option, which involves creating and supporting community-based grupos gestores de comunicación (communications groups). Until such approaches have been developed, tested, and widely adopted, the decisive factor in achieving telecenter sustainability will be the conviction of local organizations that they have a potentially large social value, of which the organizations themselves can be the immediate beneficiaries.


Akerlof G. (1970).  The market for lemons: Quality uncertainty and the market mechanism. Quarterly Journal of Economics, 84, 488-500.

Benjamin, P. (2000). ICT projects in South Africa. CommUnity, 1. (2004). The Real Access/Real Impact framework for improving the way that ICT is used in development. Retrieved September 2004 from:

Daly, J. A. (1999, May). Measuring impacts of the internet in the developing world. Information Impacts Magazine.

Delgadillo, K., & Borja, R. (undated). Learning lessons from Telecentres in Latin America and the Caribbean.  Retrieved September 2004 from:

Global Knowledge Partnership. (2003). ICT for development success stories: Youth. Poverty. Gender.  Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: GKP. Retrieved February 27, 2007 from

Gomez, R., Martinez, J., & Reilly, K. (2001).  Paths beyond connectivity — Pushing the limits of information and communication technologies for development. Ottawa: International Development Research Centre (IDRC).

Gomez, R., & Hunt, P. (Eds.). (1999). Telecentre evaluation: A global perspective, report of an international meeting on telecentre evaluation. Ottawa: International Development Research Centre (IDRC).

Gurstein, M. (2003). Effective use: A community informatics strategy beyond the Digital Divide. First Monday, 12(8). Retrieved January 12, 2007 from:

Holmes, R., Emmett, M., Esterhuysen, A., & Boezak, S. (2004). Women’s Net. Análisis de género de la metodología de evaluación de telecentros. Retrieved September 2004 from: 

Horton, D. Alexaki, A., Bennett-Lartey, S.,  Brice, K.N.,  Campilan, D.,  Carden, F., de Souza Silva, J., Duong, L.T., Khadar, I., Maestrey Boza, A., Kayes Muniruzzaman, I., J. Perez, J., Somarriba Chang, M., Vernooy, R., & Watts, J. (2003). Evaluating capacity development: experiences from research and development organizations around the world. The Hague: International Service for National Agricultural Research (ISNAR); Ottawa: International Development Research Centre (IDRC), The Hague: ACP-EU Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA).

Lusthaus, C., Anderson, G., & Murphy, E. (1995). Institutional assessment: A framework for strengthening organizational capacity for IDRC's research partners. Ottawa: International Development Research Center.

Menou, M.J., Delgadillo P., K., & Stoll, K. (2004). Latin American community telecenters:  It’s a long way to TICperary. The Journal of Community Informatics 1(1). Retrieved September 2004 from:

Owen, W. Jr., & Osei, D., (2000). Role of multipurpose community telecenters in accelerating national development in Ghana. First Monday, 5(1). Retrieved January 12, 2007 from:


Parkinson, S. (2003). The Impact of the Internet on local social equity: A study of a telecentre in Aguablanca, Colombia. Unpublished Masters dissertation, University of Guelph, Guelph.

Rathgeber, E.M., & Adera E.O., (Eds.). (2000).  Gender and the Information Revolution in Africa. Ottawa: International Development Research Centre (IDRC).

Riley, J. (2001).  Silver signals: Twenty-five years of screening and signaling.  Journal of Economic Literature, 39, 432-478.

Rothschild M., & Stiglitz, J. (1976).  Equilibrium in competitive insurance markets: An essay on the economics of imperfect information. Quarterly Journal of Economics, 90, 629-649.

Somos@telecentros. (2002). Estado del arte de los telecentros de Latino América y El Caribe. Chasquinet, Quito, Ecuador. Retrieved September 2004 from:

Weigel, G., & Waldburger, D. (Eds.). (2004). ICT4D – Connecting people for a better world. Lessons, Innovations and Perspectives of Information and Communication Technologies in Development. Berne, Switzerland: Swiss Agency of Development and Cooperation (SDC) and Global Knowledge Partnership (GKP). 

Whyte, A. (1999). Understanding the role of community telecentres in development –A proposed approach to evaluation.  In:  R. Gomez & P. Hunt (Eds.). Telecentre evaluation: A global perspective,  report of an international meeting on telecentre evaluation (p. 288). Ottawa: International Development Research Centre (IDRC).



[1]  The project evaluated here featured a rich learning process, in which local partners participated actively through periodic meetings to review and reflect on telecenter experiences. Their insights were a valuable input into this impact evaluation. We wish to acknowledge in particular Alvaro del Campo Parra, vice-rector for research and technology development at the Universidad Autónoma de Occidente; Marino Ovidio Fiscué, Coordinator of  Health, Asociación de Cabildos Indígenas del Norte del Cauca (ACIN); and William Cifuentes, Manager, Corporación para el Desarrollo de Tunía (CorpoTunía). We also recognize the contribution of Liliana Mosquera and James García in data collection.

[2] ACIN (the Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca, Colombia) supports 16 indigenous councils representing nearly 100,000 people – 65% indigenous, 30% mestizo, and 5% Afro-Colombian – through various development programs. 

[3] CorpoTunia is a local not-for-profit NGO that contributes to integrated sustainable development in Colombia’s Cauca Department by working in a participatory manner with farming communities, including indigenous groups.

[4]  For more information on the ICT4D Platform, its structure and its relationship to the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) visit

[5]  The complete report on the ACACIA project is available at:

[6] The case studies disseminated so far are available on line at:

[7] Definition of “organizational capacity development” by Horton et al. (2003):  An ongoing process by which an organization increases its ability to formulate and achieve relevant objectives. It involves strengthening both its operational (day-to-day activities) and adaptive (learn and change) capacities.

[8] To access the reports on this project, visit the Web site at: 

[9] This paper refers mainly to the two rural telecenters of the InforCauca project. Sarah Parkinson’s MSc thesis (2003) is a complete study on the social impact of the urban telecenter of Aguablanca, which was also part of this project.