Can Global Knowledge bring rural poor into the information loop?
Mexico City, (IPS World Desk, Mar 01) - For the majority of women in the rural district of Madhya Pradesh in India, the forthcoming Global Knowledge Conference to be held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia appears divorced from their lives.
The four-day Global Knowledge II Conference (GK II) kicks off in the Malaysian capital March 7, drawing more than 1,000 public and private sector representatives, non-governmental organisations and international agencies. It aims to work out strategies to put the tools of the information age in the hands of developing countries and the world's poor.
"Directly, such conferences seem as if they do not mean anything, but in that process there are always some genuine and dedicated persons who work for dissemination of information to such peoples," says Janak Palta McGilligan of the Baha'i Vocational Institute for Rural Women in Central India providing among others, Hindi literacy classes to the women of Madhya Pradesh.
"It is through such committed persons that links are established. We have already established a monthly newsletter to disseminate such information and also through which the women's views are expressed."
The majority of the women in the district have never seen a telephone or television, literacy rates range between eight and 10 percent and the Internet revolution is still yet to touch their daily lives.
"This conference should bring in these marginalised groups into this loop and it should be encouraged," says McGilligan. "I expect the conference to come out with realistic goals and commitments, followed by an action plan for implementing the major discussions agreed upon."
The challenges facing the second Global Knowledge conference is how to include groups like the women of Madhya Pradesh among the 275 million who, according to Nua Internet Surveys, currently have access to the Internet world-wide.
It is widely acknowledged that information communication technologies (ICTs) - televisions, telephones, computers, fax machines, radios and the Internet -- hold the promise of local and global information- sharing needed for sustainable development and wealth creation.
Just as labour and land were replaced some 200 years ago by capital and energy as the two factors of production in industrial society, these are now being replaced by technology and knowledge as the primary assets of wealth creation.
However GK II is being held at a time when there is broad concern that gaps in access to these tools and resources are increasing, and that the information revolution could paradoxically become a cause of even greater inequality and worsening poverty.
The conference is being convened under the broad themes of access, governance and empowerment.
"Universal access should mean access by all to all the worlds diverse riches of knowledge and information, including the knowledge of poor and traditional communities, not just the universal spread of the 'content' of those countries at the forefront of the information revolution," notes a conference discussion paper.
"In the next 2-3 years, the best contribution the Global Knowledge Partnership can make to increasing access for rural and disadvantaged communities is by focusing intensely on fostering positive policy and regulatory environments for innovation and private investment."
"Subsidies and other non-market interventions should be used whenever it is clear that the private sector is unable to adequately provide the access required," notes the GK II discussion paper.
The Global Knowledge Partnership is a grouping of public, private and not-for-profit organisations committed to sharing information and resources to promote access to and effective use of knowledge and information for sustainable development. It emerged from the co-operation of several dozen organisations that sponsored the first Global Knowledge conference in Toronto, Canada in 1997.
Among the issues on the table at GK II are:
-- how to target groups of particular concern such as women, youth, indigenous and local populations, the disabled and rural communities.
-- how to provide physical access for the under-serviced and unconnected segments and groups of society to digital information, data, knowledge, best practices and networking facilities, in particular through multimedia community access centres
-- how civil society organisations can use ICTs to identify needs, utilise local languages, enhance social inclusion, foster solidarity through networking and other new forms of social communication and interaction.
But missing from the discourse of providing access to rural areas and empowering communities are ideas on how to bring cheap energy sources to them.
"As the price of computer and Internet technology declines, the price of energy increases and will likely be unaffordable for many of the poor even if they were given a generator or connected to a power line," notes Donald Zhang Osborn consultant in rural development in Mali.
How will the world provide electricity for rural access to ICTs over vast areas of poor countries far from electric grids? Should they provide small gas or diesel generators, batteries, solar cells or pedal-powered generators?
"Can the ICT revolution really reach the majority of the world's population without a similar revolution in technologies for decentralised energy production?" says Osborn.
And while the problems of connecting large continents may seem insurmountable, island states say they feel left out of the global picture.
"As part of the global forum such as the Global Knowledge II Conference, having our voices heard means having to get behind the flag of the Asia Pacific Region, whose problems far outweigh that of small Pacific island nations like Fiji," says Katalaini Duaibe communications officer for the Fiji Womens Rights Movement. (ENDS/IPS/DV/gm/da/00)
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