By APCNews CALGARY, 18 December 2009
Ever hear of the Manthan Award? Digital Empowerment Foundation’s Manthan award is a multi-facetted initiative to identify, measure and recognise technology-for-development initiatives. Essentially, it strives to enable people everywhere to communicate freely, and help raise their quality of life though ICT tools. To this day, it has helped hundreds of ICT initiatives take off – from governments and big organisations, to small rural projects alike – and has been cited as the “missing link” between digital inclusion and development. “The idea behind the Manthan Awards was to focus on technology, not for technology’s sake, but in terms of the impact it has on people,” says Osama Manzar, founder of DEF. “And as a byproduct of the awards nomination process, to create a network of innovators who could then come together to create greater impact.”
DEF was founded in December 2002 by former software company owner, Osama Manzar. After working in the ICT industry for several years, he realised that ICTs could be more than just products – he saw the potential they had to empower the poor – and he set out to learn more about how they could help rural communities in his country. So far Osama has traveled to over a thousand rural communities, across thousands of villages. Through these experiences, he acquired a deep understanding of the realities these communities faced, and began to emphasise the need for grass-roots knowledge in development projects. What started off as a one-man operation in his own home, has now become a completely self-sustaining organisation, with a staff of about 40 people, and an extended network of partner organisations in about 60 countries. DEF’s revenues come from consultancy, research, events, and a continuous flow of government-mandated projects,
The ripple effect
Partnering with other organisations and government agencies, DEF has made a name for itself by making a big difference in small rural communities. From community information resource centres (CIRCs), to community web-based water management systems, to India’s first comprehensive multilingual wiki, DEF’s work is as varied as it is innovative.
In the past two years, seven CIRCs have been built in five different states: Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, Assam, and Madhya Pradesh. “These CIRCs are two-way information and knowledge hubs for empowerment, and in the long run, they will act as centres for all kinds of ICT-enabled information and knowledge sharing activities, including procurement, capacity-building, and acting as a supply chain for local goods towards external markets. Eventually, the CIRCs will also generate content and services for external markets, creating business opportunities and economic growth for the local communities,” explains Manzar. Some CIRCs are managed directly by DEF and others are run by local partner organisations. The initial states were selected because they are considered developing states and start-up in those particular areas was “easier because local resources were readily available and local enthusiasm was high,” says Manzar. DEF plans to build an additional 35 centres, (one in each Indian state) over the next five years.
Changing the way gov’t thinks about IT
DEF also plays an active role in advocacy and policy advisory to the Indian government. At the end of 2008, DEF presented recommendations to the fourth Internet Governance Forum held in Hyderabad and is playing an advisory role in the Indian government’s Common Service Centre (CSC) Programme on how to use CSCs to reach outside markets. CSCs are one of the Government of India’s most ambitious projects, that aims to establish telecentres across 250,000 villages.
The government has also agreed to create a national digital knowledge centre (DKC), a collection of best practices, based on DEF’s Manthan Award nominations repository and other innovative projects.
Beyond their work in advocacy, DEF is also engaged in capacity building, research and advisory and holding seminars and conferences, to identify best practices across the country. For example, Gyanpedia (www.gyanpedia.in) is a comprehensive, multilingual and dynamic virtual platform for country-wide content exchange with content being created by children and supported by teachers. DEF told APCNews that it is India’s first multilingual educational wiki.