Insights From Sri LankaInsights From Sri Lanka

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Insights From Sri Lanka
ICT: Hypes and realities

Nalaka Gunawardene

Director/CEO of TVE Asia Pacific 

This article has been adapted from a speech by the author at International workshop on ‘Building a Common Path : Beyond WSIS’, organised by Sarvodaya ( and supported by IDRC, Canada in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on 24 February 2006.

We cannot achieve progress in ICT4D when public acceptance of ICT is not yet established and our work doesn’t happen in a social vacuum.

It is easy for us to engage in self congratulatory talk and mutual compliments at gatherings of ICT4D professionals. But too much consensus can do more harm than good, so I am going to differ with majority views. I don’t engage in uncritical cheer-leading – I like being the professional skeptic, asking difficult questions that ought to be confronted.

We must ask these questions:

• Why aren’t ICTs in the mainstream of public life and public affairs in Sri Lanka?
• Are all the ICT4D initiatives merely tinkering at the periphery?
• Why is there such a string of failures in taking modern ICTs to the grassroots?
• Why is public trust and confidence in ICTs very low?
• Where are the champions of ICT when we need them?

I remember a popular Sri Lankan folk story. It relates an incident that happened when we were ruled by kings, and concerns jaggery – a delicious sugar substitute we make from the sap of the coconut palm.

The King of Lanka wanted to know how jaggery was made. He sent for the official jaggery supplier to the Palace, who claimed that it was being produced under the most hygienic conditions by people who had mastered the technique for decades. Unlike today’s rulers, however, the king didn’t believe everything he was told. He went in disguise to investigate. Just as well,  because the reality was completely different! The king found jaggery being made in a rickety old shack, with none of the hygienic conditions. A very angry king revealed who he was, and demanded an explanation. He was told:  ‘That’s the hype, Your Majesty, and this is the reality!’ The gulf between the hype and reality in our ICT circles can be as wide and shocking.

ICTs in the dock: two recent examples
Irrespective of our ethnic, economic, social or other divisions, there are three ‘institutions’ that all Sri Lankans would be outraged if anyone meddles with them:

• our education system, and public examinations in particular,
• our multi-party electoral process ;
• Sri Lankan cricket team.

During the past few weeks, modern ICTs have been accused of interfering with two of these national institutions.

The first controversy erupted in January, 2006 and was about the marking of answer scripts in the highly competitive GCE Advanced Level examination, which decides university admissions. It was revealed that an Optical Mark Reading (OMR) machine used for marking multiple choice answer scripts had been malfunctioning for years. The US-made, Indian supplied machine had been in use for six years. Its increasingly erratic performance was later attributed to frequent power failures at the Department of Examinations – sometimes as frequently as 10 times a day. Apparently no one thought of using a UPS, and by the time the marking anomalies were spotted (or acknowledged), 2005′ examination results had already been announced. An attempt to recall the results, and manually re-correct the answer scripts had thousands of students and parents shocked and outraged.

This ‘exam scandal’ not only seriously undermined the credibility of the entire public education system, but also caused much damage to the public perception of IT and ICT.
Even the usually open-minded English press was vocal in its criticism. The Island’s editorial on 17 Feb 2006 said: “Now we know in this country, it is wrong to say ‘IT is your future’. It should perhaps be correct to say ‘IT can ruin your future’. The future of thousands of school children was almost ruined…”
While all these were happening, the government’s ICT Agency never once entered the debate. As we later discovered, it was busy in placing our Parliament online. Nearly 11 years after commercial Internet arrived in Sri Lanka, the national legislature finally had its own website in February 2006, but it was far
from perfect.

In reality, the website turned out to be incomplete and full of factual, spelling and grammatical errors, failing to provide basic accurate information about the 225
As we studied the new website, having accessed on 21 February, 2006 a few days after its official launch — we found many problems. Among them, some are as follows :

• The entire website was only in English, whereas the national languages policy requires the government to use Sinhala, Tamil and English languages.
• Most Parliamentarians engage in their work and debates in Sinhala or Tamil, yet these languages were completely ignored.
• The website claimed to profile all 225 Members of Parliament (MPs). Yet, the Leader of the Opposition — an MP since 1977 and a former Prime Minister — was not listed!
• Other key opposition MPs are not included in either the directory or biography sections about MPs.
One might say that these are teething problems of a new website. But what was the rush to place such a website online, before ironing out these problems? Once again, this did not inspire public confidence in ICTs.

Government online?Show me where!
In a sense, the bungling of the Parliament website must be seen within the broader context of numerous failures in rhetorical and costly moves for an e-Government.  Sri Lanka was the first country in South Asia to have unrestricted, commercial Internet connectivity in April, 1995. Yet our public sector was totally unprepared to engage the new medium. The government agencies took several years to take even the first faltering steps of placing their brochures and forms online. A decade later, we have not moved very far. And a majority of government websites are still available exclusively in English, notwithstanding the Sinhala nationalist government now in office.

Writing the Sri Lanka chapter in the Digital Review of Asia Pacific (2005/2006 edition), I commented two years ago: ‘In spite of the ICT road map recognising e-Government as a priority area, not a single government agency or department offered the option of completing an entire transaction online as at May 2004. None of the statutory dues to the government could be paid online.’

Sadly, this has not improved by early 2006 – in spite of massive amounts of donor or public funds being spent on re-engineering government to engage ICTs.
You can’t get there from here…

Development practitioners, who want to apply ICTs to solve problems, need to take note of this big picture. We cannot achieve progress in ICT4D, when public acceptance of ICT is not yet established. Our work doesn’t happen in a social vacuum.

Tinkering with a few ‘pilots’ at the periphery is not going to mainstream ICTs in society. If we want real impact, we simply have to be smarter and more strategic. Let’s never lose sight of the fact that ICT4D is a subset within ICTs in society.

No amount of legislation, policy formulation and paid propaganda by the ICTA is going to mainstream ICTs in Sri Lankan society. ICTs have to prove their worth, and be accepted as adding value to living and working conditions of ordinary people.

We can assess the utility and relevance of a new technology by asking a few simple questions as follows :

Does the new technology or process

• put more food on their table?
• add more money in people’s pockets?
• make interfacing with government easier?
• save time and effort involved in commuting?
• support cultural and personal needs of individuals and groups?
• put a smile on users’ faces?

Finally, is it affordable, user-friendly and widely available, with minimum entry level barriers?
This is a simple check list – one we need to run through every few weeks to ensure we are on the right track.

Desperately looking for ICT4D successes
Indeed, there is a real danger that we might lull ourselves into believing that we are addressing the vast unmet needs through our little ‘pilots’, scattered in a few places.
In 2003/2004, the UNDP Asia Pacific Development Information Programme (UNDP-APDIP) carried out a nine-country Asia Pacific study to find out how ICTs are contributing to human development. The countries covered by this study were: China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mongolia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam. Two colleagues and I researched for instances of ICT tools that have had direct and discernible impact on the poor in Sri Lanka. We did not find a single successful initiative — except in artificial conditions created by disproportionately high donor funding and external technical support.  After looking at various governmental, civil society and university projects – none of which can withstand real world conditions – we concluded that the single ‘winner’ from Sri Lanka was the mobile phone. This entirely market-driven phenomenon stood out amidst many donor-driven projects, that had either collapsed or never taken off.

Mobile phones today truly cut across social, class and economic divides. Having been an expensive, elitist tool when first introduced in 1989, it has become a tool that ordinary people can afford to use for a wide range of purposes. Breaking up the initial monopoly and good telecom regulation have helped bring down costs. Interestingly, not a single development donor has directly invested in this particular ICT.

There are now a large number of other ‘small-is-beautiful’ type ICT4D initiatives across Africa, Asia Pacific and Latin America. The tele-centre fever, currently sweeping the developing world, is the latest wave. Tax payers in the North keep these numerous projects on life support, believing the hype that they really help the poor. But do they, really? I remain to be convinced.

If some people want to believe in myths, that’s a personal choice. But such projects — like Sri Lanka’s much-touted Kotmale Internet browsing by radio — do great harm by distracting funding agencies, distorting investment priorities and creating an illusion of accomplishment. Murali Shanmugavelan, a researcher with Panos London, calls these initiatives ‘donor mistresses’.

My own label for them is ‘picture postcard opportunities’ for roving development workers. There is a certain seductive allure in images of school children playing with a computer, a Buddhist monk using a mobile phone, or tribal people trying out a palm-top. They make us believe that we are fixing the world’s ills with geeky gadgets – when, in fact, we are merely tinkering in the periphery.

And all the while, the fundamental constraints keep our societies digitally divided. For Sri Lanka, these bottlenecks include:

• the high capital and operating costs;
• lack of adequate infrastructure;
• absence of enabling policies and laws and
• failure to produce standardised local language fonts and locally relevant content.

Unless and until these are addressed meaningfully, there cannot be much meaningful ICT4D. Tragically, the ICT Agency of Sri Lanka, which has the mandate and powers to
address these issues, is instead dissipating its energy and resources on setting up rural tele-centres, a task that it should leave to better positioned and experienced groups. This glaring inability to set and pursue the right priorities has been a bane of Sri Lankan ICT sector for years.

Public acceptance of ICT is vital
For any ICT4D to succeed, IT and ICTs need to win public trust, confidence and acceptance. Much research has been done looking at the sociology and social-anthropology of how new technologies are accepted and assimilated into societies. A key component within this is public communication of science and technology (PCST).
We now know that demonstrated economic, social or cultural benefits alone will not necessarily secure public acceptance of a new technology. The process is more complex and prolonged. The ICT professionals can learn from other sectors where new technologies or processes have been introduced through careful social marketing and promotion. Some examples can be sited here :

• In water supply and sanitation, the practitioners know that building latrines is only a beginning. There is a whole lot more that needs to be done before people change their behaviour.
• In family planning, too, promoters found out long ago that merely making birth control methods readily available was not enough: there was a ‘sociology’ to be studied, engaged and used.

All ICT and ICT4D practitioners must consider the ‘sociology’ of introducing and promoting new tools of ICT to communities. One reason for Sri Lanka’s long string of failures in taking ICTs to the grassroots is that it has been driven by engineers and technologists (geeks) who believed, no doubt sincerely, that gadgets can fix
all social problems.

Public acceptance of new technologies can be summed up in a few key, progressive steps:

• First, people begin to take note of it (there may be suspicions and apprehensions).
• Then some people warm up to it – they want to try and see!
• When more people use it, and become familiar with it, acceptance begins to take root slowly – and a few ‘champions’ begin to emerge from within.
• After years of use, barring serious mishaps, people begin to actually trust it, and trust their children with it!
• After some more time, everyone accepts it as part of the socio-cultural landscape, and no one gives a second thought
• Finally comes the stage where people clamour for it, and are even willing to pay for it!

In short, it moves from being supply-driven to demand-driven. In ICT4D, we are still at the beginning of this process, with external parties (from the city, or overseas) driving it with supply.

Meeting the challenges: what can be done?
Although I ask difficult questions, I don’t have all the answers. Here are a few thoughts.

• Adopt a ‘micro-macro’ approach: By all means, we must continue the worthwhile grassroots micro projects. But at the same time, some of us should address the ‘big picture’ level bottlenecks, constraints and issues.
• Kick the ‘pilots’ to take off: It is fine to start pilot projects, as long as we know how and when to phase out and withdraw. Some pilots will never take off due to inherent design flaws. Others may fly only for a short while and crash. Even if just a handful manage to soar on their own power, that would be far better than sustaining ‘forever pilots’ that distort the scale for everyone.
• Get the fundamentals right: Our pilots can’t take off when the ‘runway’ is cluttered with debris. We need to identify and advocate areas for reform in policy, legislation, tariffs, technology, trade agreements, etc.
• Don’t sleepwalk: It’s easy to get mesmerised by gadgets, especially in the ICT sector. Let us never lose sight of what we are trying to do. ICTs are only means to an end – to make living and working easier for everyone.
• Strengthen the industry: Remembering that ICT4D is a sub-set of ICT, we need to create a more vigorous, dynamic ICT industry. Only then will ICT tools, processes, support services and know-how become widely available, affordable and public acceptance begin to consolidate.
• Play our niche roles: Government, industry, academia and civil society each have a niche role. There are some factors that only governments or their agencies can address such as infrastructure, enabling policies and good market regulation. We must each do what we are best at doing and leave the rest to the others.

• Strategically champion ICTs: This is perhaps the hardest to get right. We need credible, articulate, passionate individuals who take a ‘big picture’ view of ICTs’ role in society and economy, and who speak for the ICT sector in public debates and controversies. This is precisely what we in Sri Lanka currently lack.

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