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Telecentres are NOT sustainable!

By Michael Gurstein on June 27, 2011

rwanda-internet-bus.jpg

Almost since the very beginning of Telecentres/public access centres the nagging from funders – mostly governments but major NGO’s as well – has been directed towards making sure that these would somehow/sometime become financially self-sustaining i.e. “sustainable”. The idea was that once the initial investment had been made – mostly in providing hardware/software and some period of supported connectivity – that Telecentres would somehow magically be able to transform themselves into “social enterprises” which could get enough revenue from their local communities to:

  1. Pay salaries (and benefits) to staff
  2. Pay rent on buildings
  3. Cover access charges
  4. Cover charges for maintenance and replacement

Given that the Telecentres were established in the first place and located where they were precisely because the local population was for the most part poor, isolated, and other wise marginalized i.e. not in a position to pay for their own computers, Internet access etc. seems to have escaped the attention of those leading the demands for “sustainability”. That this sustainability was a more or less complete pipedream which any realistic assessment of the circumstances of Telecentres would have determined seems to have been overlooked as both funders and Telecentres themselves chose to hope somehow that the future reckoning in terms of funder expectations/Telecentre commitments would never arrive.

And so Telecentres have limped along without realistic plans for the future or sufficient funding to achieve even their modest goals and funders have turned to consultant study after consultant study to find the magic formula that would take off their hands/budgets this unwelcome dependency of providing internet and computer access to those on the other side of the “Digital Divide” i.e. those who for whatever reason were unable or unwilling to provide it for themselves.

To be very clear: certainly there are publicly accessible Internet centres in very many communities in all parts of the world. The most common name for them is Cybercafes. Cybercafes provide computer/Internet access primarily to young males to fulfill various fantasies via more or less violent games and other such pursuits. That it is widely headlined that these private enterprises have little or no redeeming social value (I won’t argue this at the moment) and certainly no value from a social or economic development perspective let alone resolving issues of a Digital or a Service Divide is almost unarguable.

The broader purpose of Telecentres was and remains to add value as social initiatives by governments or others by providing free or very low cost Internet access to low income populations, in remote regions, or for those with other forms of social disability that prevent broad participation in an increasingly digital society. If governments (or others) choose to de-fund existing Telecentres on the basis that they are saving them from the evil of “dependency” (or whatever) they should know that they are choosing to penalize precisely those whom they have otherwise identified as requiring support because of their social and economic circumstances.

Governments are not only unrealistic but they are deeply hypocritical in requiring communities in which they previously made these investments because of their overall lack of resources, to somehow now come up with the resources to support these facilities. One additional observation, Telecentre funders repeatedly confuse the issue of Telecentre utilization rates with the issue of funding and sustainability.

Cybercafes have high utilization rates (or they don’t survive) precisely because they are market driven and thus provide the kinds of services on which those without significant financial responsibilities are prepared to spend their money—i.e. entertainment. Telecentres have or at least should have the mission of providing Internet enabled services and opportunities for access and use to those otherwise unable to obtain such access, make such use and thus achieve a degree of digital inclusion.

These services (which of course, will vary from locations to location) are responsibilities and goals for which government funds have been budgeted. Attempting to download responsibility and cost for the delivery of these services onto the poor and marginalized themselves – which the continuing chants for “sustainability” in fact are, is both the height of irresponsibility and the height of cynicism.

The challenge is to design and develop Telecentres which are embedded (“owned”) by local communities and which provide those communities with among other capabilities the variety of services and supports (as for example e-government, e-health, small business development and support) which they require and which otherwise, in the absence of the Telecentre, would be much less accessible and much more costly and difficult to obtain (and to deliver).

These are notes for a talk to be given by Mike Gurstein to an ITU sponsored workshop on Telecentre sustainability in Bangkok, May 23-25, 2011 and were published originally as Telecentres are not “Sustainable”: Get Over It!

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Michael Gurstein is currently Executive Director of the Centre for Community Informatics Research, Development and Training (Vancouver BC and Cape Town, South Africa). Canadian, he completed a B.A. at the University of Saskatchewan and a Ph.D. in Sociology at the University of Cambridge.
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16 Comments to “Telecentres are NOT sustainable!”

  1. Wayan (and all), this is a great post packed with a lot of wisdom about the challenges of telecenters. In fact, your thoughts echo what we’ve learned in our experience setting up telecenters at IREX. One thing that I would want to add, and this really gets at our own intellectual evolution on this topic, is that in many places there already is an existing public institution that is owned by the local community and can provide a variety of information services: the public library.

    http://www.irex.org/project/global-libraries

    Several years back, we began implementing the Global Libraries programs in Ukraine and Romania and what we’ve discovered is that public libraries get at the sustainability question in a way that no other institution we’ve worked with has. It’s taken some time for people to move past the notion of libraries as just museums for books, but what we’ve found is that libraries are, by an appreciable margin, often the best partner for community access to information projects.

    Libraries are an inherently sustainable community civic institution. They have existing relationships with local governments and typically have public funding mechanisms. Libraries are naturally accessible as they offer information access to any community member, regardless of ability to pay or social status. They belong to networks located throughout a country, often even in the smallest villages. At their best, effective public libraries are essentially local in that they respond immediately to specific, identified community needs. And most importantly, for a variety of reasons, they are already on the ground – they don’t require building something new from scratch. Despite these factors, we’ve found that many in the development field are simply uninformed of how libraries can support their projects.

    That leads us to wonder, why don’t more development professionals consider public libraries as appropriate project partners?

    -@irextech

    Meaghan O’Connor, Program Officer, IREX
    Matt Vanderwerff, Program Officer, IREX

  2. Wayan Vota says:

    I think you greatly overestimate the distribution of libraries. Yes, in Eastern Europe they are plentiful, but not so much in Africa. In fact, I’ve only seen one (City Library in Abuja) but no one seemed to know it existed or remembered using it (I asked many people as I was so surprised to see one).

  3. Sabina says:

    I’ve only skimmed this post and the comment but to me the solution seems simple – scheduling. During the work/school day the facility functions as a telecenter, providing free or low-cost access to educators, local businesses, classes, seminars, etc., and in the evening and even late night it functions as a cybercafe, charging fee-for-service at a rate of whatever the market will bear. This in conjunction with small grants, corporate gifts, volunteers, and some innovative thinking can make for a very successful and sustainable ICT facility.

  4. John K. - Tanzania says:

    I agree with the article which will, of course, make some in the ICT4D realm squirm a little. Without being too cynical, we have seen ICT project after project fail to be sustainable due to the lack of ownership by local communities and their failure to address local problems with relevant answers. Our villagers have become seasoned participants in this game, welcoming any initiatives for the small amounts of money that trickle down to them during these projects and have learnt to answer all the right questions and pose for the photo ops to ensure the trials and pilots keep coming. Suprisingly it is the commercial applications that really address their needs like the mPesa’s that they take up, albeit slowly at first and at great expense to the enterprises. Even in mPesa’s case, that particular application shines where the majority are underserved in the banking area. In countries where banking has a greater reach, the uptake has not been so phenominal.

    Somewhere some lessons need to be learnt. Just because a study shows that increased penetration of internet access is accompanied by inreased GDP does not neccessarily mean that providing every African villager with an internet connection and computer he or she can use will increase their incomes, or improve their lives for that matter. We need to prioritize the needs of the people first and then use ICT to rapidly answer these needs whenever appropriate. Sometimes just providing a paved road, clean water, mosquito nets or solar lanterns will have a far bigger impact on rural communities than internet cafe’s or hi-tech mobile apps. Whilst these apps may show great promise in pilots, the amounts of money spent in development and trial deployment, sometimes in the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars, leaves one to wonder who the real beneficiaries are.

    It’s time we looked at this ICT4D issue a little more critically and ask ourselves why after over 10 years or more of ICT4D we still have only a few apps that are actually scalable and having an impact universally. Maybe my grandmother in the village doesn’t really feel the need to get on Facebook, twitter or e-soko; she just is getting weary of having to walk 3 miles to fetch water and firewood.

  5. Wayan Vota says:

    Before we get too crazy and throw all of ICT out the window, let’s be clear on where telecenters work – market failure situations. When the local populace cannot support the full cost of Internet access, and government sees telecenters as a way to speed delivery of essentsl government services and info dessimiation, telecenters can be a vibrant local connection.

    This model requires ongoing government support, which is a sustainable model. Just look at schools, police, fire, water and all the other services offered to citizenry that are subsidized by government without question.

  6. Great discussion and thanks Wayan for reposting this.

    Folks might also be interested in taking a look at the quite extensive discussion that followed the original blogpost at http://wp.me/pJQl5-6O.

    As well, there is an ongoing discussion on these and related issues on the Community Informatics elist which can be subscribed to through http://vancouvercommunity.net/lists/info/ciresearchers.

    Best,

    Mike

  7. Wayan Vota says:

    Also check out Mike’s point around where telecenters are needed and can be sustainable:

    However, this is not to say that there is no current role for Telecentres.  The most important role in fact is what has been widely ascribed to them but seldom developed, that is as centres within communities which are enabled by and provide access to the Internet and which have the skills locally to support the local use of the Internet for a wide variety of application areas.  When seen in this way, the Telecentre becomes a key element in broader social and economic development strategies, not simply Internet-based strategies, but rather for overall functional areas which of course now include virtually all areas of practical activity, which have an Internet or ICT component.

    When seen in this way, the Telecentre can become the village or community local public health facility, the local government access point, the local support centre for small business development, the local hub for tutoring and after-hours educational support for school children and so on.

    The key element in this rethinking is that the sponsor and the local community work together to identify those application and functionality areas which are of interest to and would benefit the local community. As well, engaging the local community in an actual organizational partnership (as for example through a local community association or local government) to provide resources for the Telecentre and as well develop a plan for linking the Telecentre more directly into the community through enabling and encouraging voluntary participation and contributions.

    http://gurstein.wordpress.com/2011/05/15/re-thinking-telecentres-a-community-informatics-approach-2/

  8. Wayan,

    I think Mike’s comments make a ton of sense and are very consistent with what we’ve seen over the years in Asia and Africa. To expect a telecenter to operate like a business after its been operating with donor subsidy is simply unrealistic especially when CapEx and OpEx outlays for the typical telecenter far exceed the ability of the local market to carry the costs.

    I agree with your point that telecenters have a role in certain cases where there is a clear market failure. For example, many women do not like to use iCafes because of the prevalence of young men (very often viewing porn). This can be addressed through some form of public access targeted at addressing that market failure. There can be a role for publicly-supported telecenters to address that market failure just as libraries fill in an important market gap here in the US.

    The key is being clear on the issue of subsidy. Telecenters should not be established unless there is a clear and obvious source of on-going subsidy, typically the host government (at national or local levels) to cover their costs. It is irresponsible to expect ‘communities’ to pick up the costs of a telecenter after the donor support ends.

  9. Ari Katz says:

    Actually, I think your comment demonstrates part of the issue. Libraries are in fact, not so rare – check out the IFLA 2010 world report here:

    http://bit.ly/baN3Wb

    Throughout West Africa, for example, there are hundreds of public libraries in many countries. Even more in other parts of the world.

    What’s true, however, is that many people don’t know about them past their traditional role and perception guarding books. This is a function of both libraries in many places serving little beyond that role, and lack of imagination in the development community in helping transform them into a more modern role.

    There are many exceptions, however. Look at the recent participants in EIFL’s Public Library Innovation Program:

    http://www.eifl.net/Our-grantees

    The point is that you can’t talk about development in the 21st century without also talking about information and access to it. When you accept that that’s part of the picture, the next step is either creating a new institution to serve that need (that may be appropriate in some places) or depending on an institution that’s already publicly funded, that’s already present in many communities and is already dedicated to access to information.

  10. Wayan Vota says:

    I fully agree that libraries are a great base for ICT outreach programs – I am a big fan of IREX work with libraries in Eastern Europe. Yet, again, I will say that there are few libraries in Africa countries. The link you provided shows that.

    So should a government invest in libraries vs. telecenters? I agree with you, they should do both. As in invest in libraries that also have a telecenter. Where we disagree is that there are not enough libraries to fulfill this role now.

  11. Hey Wayan,

    Thanks for your thoughts.

    I think there might be an issue with the link to IFLA’s report so that it only displays a report for South Africa. If you take this link:

    http://www.ifla-world-report.org/

    and click on the “Country-oriented map” you can see that there are countries in Africa with public library systems. Here’s just a few:

    Cote d Ivoire: more than 83 public libraries
    Ghana: 10 regional, 52 branch libraries and 195 community libraries
    Zimbabwe: 49 public libraries
    Namibia: 65 public libraries

  12. Ari Katz says:

    I don’t think we’d argue there are enough libraries everywhere, just that it makes more sense to invest in an existing public institution with an existing support structure rather than trying to create a new one from scratch that has the same mission.

    In any case, the gist of all of this – and something I’m pretty sure we’re in agreement on – is that access to information is so essential in this age that it should be a fundamental public service guaranteed by the government. That’s the point – whether it’s telecenters or libraries or some combination – “sustainability” shouldn’t be an issue, because the institution that provides that access should have the same essential role as schools, roads, and clinics. No one ever asks schools to come up with a “sustainability plan”.

  13. Mark F says:

    We realy have to look at it in diferent angles- I do remember the first insception of the word :”telecenter” what quickly come in my mind was “another goverment project has come”.This is mind set that most of us have-this is very poison and we have to realy woks hard to get rid off that poison

    secondly;threre has been some already initiatives whether by private sectors etc but in starting the what i do call government telecenterrs-this was not considered-instead it was sort of killing those initiatives rather than seeng how we could strengthening or get in partner.

    Those have been run on it is own-self module telecenters-we have so many words that represent telecenter-some call farmers information centers etc-so my advice is this: we have to start develop a mechanism to introduce sefl operation-and also before starting new let us conduct servey first on the exsting situation and opportunities and see how to move-sometime there is no need to invest huge money-is only matter of capacity building and strenghthining and ensure that the intended goal is reached

    thanks

  14. Rowan says:

    “The most common name for them is Cybercafes. Cybercafes provide computer/Internet access primarily to young males to fulfill various fantasies via more or less violent games and other such pursuits.”

    Huh? Kigali where I live is full of little Cybercafes. They are just places where people get cheap internet. Men, women and children mostly checking their emails and Facebook. Nothing as sinister as you are suggesting.

  15. Mika Välitalo says:

    Good discussion! Have you seen this one:

    Sustainability First is a research publication, capturing the lessons learned from a two year long qualitative research carried out between 2007-2008, on economic sustainability of telecentres. Research work included in depth studies in five telecentre network operations in 4 countries; Brasil, India, Bangladesh & Sri Lanka. Target group includes ICT4D practitioners, activists and social entrepreneurs.

    http://ht.ly/5uR2N

  16. Dan Salcedo says:

    Don’t agree that “telecenters are not sustainable”

    Telecenters are a noble approach to democratizing the benefits to ICT. However most of them struggle for sustainability precisely because they target users of limited means. The key to their viability, however, is providing services to the relatively prosperous enterprises in that exist in all communities. Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) are increasingly feeling the necessity to establish an on-line presence and are willing and able to pay a small amount as well as purchase additional services such as computer/camera rental, training, and technical assistance. Once the fixed costs of a telecenter (rent, equipment, staff payroll, Internet access) are covered with e-commerce services to local SMEs, the marginal cost of offering Internet services to low income users (peasants, students, residents of slums, etc.) is modest.

    OpenEntry.com is the only e-commerce application specifically designed for SMEs networks in the developing world. It offers totally free e-commerce catalogs built on Google’s cloud computing environment (examples from 45 countries at OpenEntry.com/Catalog). Instructions are in 57 languages.

    OpenEntry won the Global IT Excellence Award for Digital Opportunity from WITSA.org and a UNDP evaluation (http://goo.gl/EWd4b) in Nepal, concluded:

    1. The largest impact of implementing this ‘pro-poor’ e-commerce approach was on income and employment.
    2. Firms using it reported jobs directly attributable to on-line promotion . . . 3918 women
    3. A relatively inexperienced group of young IT professionals could, with the proper tools, create employment for themselves while providing e-commerce services to local SMEs.