Bread and technology

7 Jul 2005

As the sunlight streams into the top-floor cafe at the offices of the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources on Adelaide Road, poverty-stricken villages in India and Namibia seem a long way away, but decisions being made in this building could have far-reaching consequences for these and other countries over the coming years.

This much is clear after a lengthy discussion with Terry Culver, director of global partnerships and communications at the Global e-Schools and Communities Initiative (GeSCI), a little known non-governmental organisation (NGO), which operates out of the government department’s offices.

GeSCI (pronounced ‘Gessy’) seeks to raise the educational standards of communities in the developing world through the application of ICT and help achieve the Millennium Development Goals agreed by UN member states.

The concept of GeSCI was established by the UN ICT Task Force in 2003, but it is not a UN body as such. “Our role is complementary to the task force; we’re a manifestation of many of the ideas that came out of it but we’re not part of it,” says US-born Culver, who moved from New York earlier this year to join GeSCI.

The organisation is modest in scale. It has eight people based in Dublin plus a further two working on the ground in Namibia and India. It is funded by the Irish, Swedish and Swiss Governments, each of which has committed funding of €1m over three years. A fourth core backer of the project, Canada, is also expected to pledge funding.

GeSCI had its official launch at the global forum of the UN ICT Task Force, when it met in Dublin for the first time in April this year. At that event, GeSCI held two round-table discussions on its current projects. “We emerged with a roadmap of the needs, ambitions and awareness of the challenges. We used the event as an accelerator — a good excuse to get everyone to the table and focus on the issues at hand,” says Culver.

GeSCI buys heavily into the partnership model, believing it can be most effective by working alongside developing countries rather than trying to impose solutions from the outside. “Our most effective role is to help a government in a particular country come to its own understanding of what it wants to do,” Culver explains.

There is also a clear recognition that each country is different and will therefore require tailored solutions rather than off-the-shelf technology. “For instance, Namibia has a relatively small population spread out over a great distance, so connectivity is going to be the big problem. In India, a densely populated country, the challenges will be different,” notes Culver.

GeSCI has helped the Namibian Government formulate its first ICT in education policy, which was formally launched last month. There is also a number of working groups in that country exploring issues such as access, connectivity and content. The programmes developed have to take account of unique local conditions. For example, in Namibia, as with most sub-Saharan countries, AIDS is widespread and many young teachers are among the victims. “We’re going to lose a whole generation at the peak of their productive lives,” notes Culver with sadness. “With teachers dying, the solution we come up with might include remote learning for students.”

In India, GeSCI’s work is less well advanced. The plan there is to choose two states — perhaps one mainly rural, the other urban — which will be the focus of regional ICT-in-education efforts. Discussions are under way with several candidate states and GeSCI expects to have chosen its partner states and signed memorandums of understanding with them by September.

But these initiatives are only the start, says Culver, who predicts GeSCI’s growth over the coming years will be “exponential”. He says the organisation hopes to be working with three to six developing countries by the end of 2006 and eight or more by 2010.

Getting to this scale of activity will of course require enormous resources, he concedes, which is where the idea of partnership really kicks in. The reality is that GeSCI cannot act in isolation — it will be a member of a consortium of interested parties involved in a project including national governments, donor countries, the private sector, local communities and international organisations such as the World Bank.

“The concept of multi-stakeholder partnerships has caught on in development circles but has not yet prove itself. Managing such partnerships is going to be one of the biggest challenges we face,” notes Culver.

He also acknowledges that GeSCI will have to establish its reputation by creating a track record of successful projects. “Proven projects will help catalyse other projects,” he says.

What defines a successful project is open to question however. Culver points out that “it is easy to drop technology into a developing country and show results” but GeSCI, he says, is more interested in achieving lasting success, not just ticking boxes here and there.
One criticism that could be made of organisations such as GeSCI is that they seeking to deploy technology in countries where more basic human needs such as food and healthcare are not being met. Culver is quick to respond: “Yes, there are immediate interventions needed for life and death issues, but at the same time there has to be room for long-term projects to try to solve the problems.
“ICT is the tool,” he adds. “Our role is to figure out how ICT can help — if at all.”

Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of GeCSI is that it is not just another UN offshoot based in a big metropolis. That Dublin rather than New York, Paris or London should be chosen as its international headquarters may seem surprising but it was quite deliberate, says Culver. “Ireland has established a reputation in moving from an agrarian to a knowledge economy and there’s lessons there that can be applied to the developing world. Secondly, we wanted to demonstrate a degree of independence from the UN. We also wanted to make a statement that development doesn’t have to happen in New York; it can happen all over the world.”

By Brian Skelly