Grassroots - from bypass to superhighway

Grassroots - from bypass to superhighway


From New York to New Delhi, the democratic world of the Internet is revolutionizing communication. It allows small groups with limited budgets to interact with other communities, to sound warnings and to campaign against social injustice and exploitation anywhere on the planet. But so far, the information superhighway has been more like a bypass for poor people throughout the world: they have experienced few of the benefits of global communication.

A number of institutions around the world are now working to make the Internet accessible to disadvantaged communities. Among the most impressive projects is an educational network called Edunet in Pakistan, the first programme of its kind in South Asia. It started operating - with the assistance of the Sustainable Development Network (SDN) of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) - in early 1995 in Lahore, Pakistan's most populous city, and has persevered despite some daunting initial setbacks. A couple of months after it was set up, an armed gang broke into the office and stole most of the equipment: then no sooner had new equipment been bought, and the data painstakingly entered all over again, than a sudden power surge burnt out some of its systems.

students Managed by a small team of educators and computer specialists Edunet links state schools among the city's disadvantaged communities and works in partnership with the Alif Laila Children's Educational Complex, an innovative education programme which has been conducting computer training programmes for children in Lahore's slums. Through its 20 digital telephone lines, users take part in discussion fora and conferences. These often generate heated debates: among the most popular is one on the state of education in Pakistan.

They can also access a huge database, with text and graphics, which is designed to be a source of teaching material. Teachers can find up-to-date information on subjects taught at all school levels including material on development, the environment, science and technology, sport, theatre and music, and many other topics. It contains reference sources, such as encyclopaedias, atlases, literature collections and dictionaries. It is indexed, with a brief description of each article, and users can download relevant material. There are a number of computers running as compact disc servers.

Links with the media

Edunet also carries weekly journals on computer technology and mailing lists of organizations concerned with development issues. It offers electronic mail and access to several news groups throughout Pakistan. Through the Internet services of UNDP's SDN, users can access e-mail facilities worldwide. Students raid the shareware programmes on games. Schools communicate and exchange experiences. A user can tap into the mailing lists of resource persons on various issues and communicate with a list member.

Edunet is now spreading rapidly to other parts of Pakistan such as Gujranwala, Faisalabad, Quetta and Sialkot: Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto has plans to provide all Government schools with computers. But it does not yet provide full Internet connectivity outside Pakistan to enable its users, for example, to communicate with other information networks. It has the know-how and fully trained staff to set up global access but is trying to find the money to make it possible.

'Only the financial elite of this country has so far been able to make use of the computer revolution,' says Midhat Kazim, Edunet's director. 'But over the past few years, computer technologies have become cheaper and more user-friendly. Community groups can now use them to voice their concerns and speak to decision makers.'

A voice for isolated communities

Half a world away, a North American indigenous community is doing just that. The Dineh (or traditional) members of the Navajo Nation on Big Mountain in Northern Arizona in the United States, have been fighting a little known battle to reclaim their ancestral land for two decades.

Most of them live a subsistence lifestyle in hogans with no running water or electricity. Many neither read nor write English. But they are now using an Internet link via a cellular telephone, allowing the Dineh to inform the world of their plight. Last spring, when members of the grassroots Dineh Alliance were appealing against a decision to renew a mining permit on their ancestral land, they created their own Website and conducted e-mail campaigns. They received thousands of letters of support from concerned groups throughout the world and attached some of them to the legal briefs they submitted.

'We understand that communication is one of the biggest obstacles we face,' says Louise Benally, who heads the Alliance. 'Before the Internet, the only communication links we could make were by taking a 40-mile round trip to make a telephone call, or by a weekly trip to the post office. Now this type of high-speed technology is our key to getting the truth about what is going on here in Big Mountain out of this remote area.'

Meanwhile, rural women in the Republic of South Africa are using the Internet to learn about organic gardening and to acquire literacy skills. A religious group based in Stellenbosch, The Community of Living Water, which is committed to a life of service and simplicity, is employing the new technology to help a group of local women gain increased economic freedom and new skills.

The women's group - whose name, Masizakhe, means 'we build together' - sells used clothes to pay for adult education courses available from SANGONet, a regional electronic information and communications network, and other sources. They also use the Internet for help in market gardening: two of the sites they access the most are Ohio University's, for technical information on vegetable growing, and Life magazine's gardening encyclopaedia. They will soon take part in video conferencing, exchanging experiences with a British community.

Don de Silva specializes in communication and the environment. He can be reached at: and would like to receive information about grassroots action.

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