By AL for APCNews KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, 16 August 2007
Through evaluations we can measure to what extent our work is contributing our bit, our grain of sand, in the struggle for a better world. The APC women’s programme took this premise to heart when it developed the Gender Evaluation Methodology (GEM). At the end of July women and men from around the world gathered in Kuala Lumpur to share their experiences with the use of GEM in particular and evaluations in general. One of the lessons learned was that before beginning this sort of activity one has to understand what values and ideas inspire different organisations. Using a concrete example from India, this article from APCNews shows the extent to which it is necessary to reconstruct what many organisations understand by “ICT for development”.
Different ways of seeing
According to popular wisdom, “it all depends on which eyes you see the world through”. This could not be more true when it comes to looking at the debate on the contribution that information and communication technologies (ICTs) make to development.
The private sector lauds them as a means of extending the market. Different professionals from the world of administration argue that they are a tool for achieving institutional efficiency. International organisations and a certain sector of civil society point to them as tools that allow for substantial improvements, from a community perspective, in health, education, and other areas. Other voices, including the Indian organisation IT for Change, proclaim that they represent a new empowerment strategy that can transform power relations in favour of the least privileged sectors of society.
The actual practice: Mahiti Manthana
Mridula Swamy, a 25-year-old woman with a sweet voice, explored this final vision in her presentation “A gender framework for ICT for development projects in India”, as part of a panel on evaluation methodologies. What better than to share a concrete experience with an audience eager for real stories, lived by real people? Doing an admirable job at synthesising, Mridula managed to tell the story of Mahiti Manthana in no more than fifteen minutes.
Mahiti Manthana integrates radio, video and telecentres into the work of an existing grassroots women’s organisation, thereby avoiding the creation of new structures not connected to the community. How is it that this type of intervention has the potential to transform unequal power relations in a community?
Participation and appropriation, from the individual to the collective
According to Mridula, a fundamental element is the participation in and appropriation of the process by those who are traditionally known as the “beneficiaries”. The objective then is to work with committed women who are the owners of their own change. How do we achieve this? One of the possible answers has low cost videos playing a leading role. This is an ideal medium in communities where illiteracy is far from the exception. Each of the discussion groups chooses its own themes, methodologies and pace.
Another key aspect is the collective nature of the empowerment. Many women gather to listen to the community radio broadcasts, which feature them as main characters. In this way not only is information on various topics and activities that interest them shared, but they also engage in a process of collective identity construction. The radio is also a way for the rest of the community to recognise these women’s groups as such. Once they hear what their wives are doing on the radio, many husbands put up less resistance to the women leaving their homes to go to the meetings.
The power of some numbers… and the relative nature of others
The power of the telecentre component of Mahiti Manthana is based on making a direct and critical connection between communities and the information that the government produces and gathers. On the one hand, for many it is their only way to learn about the services and programmes that they can access. On the other, it allows them to directly advocate for themselves regarding the information that the government has – or often does not have – about them. More accurate data can improve interventions in the areas of health, education, etc. But it is also a means for detecting inaccurate information which authorities are exploiting. This is specialist knowledge that is produced by those who are used to consuming it, which can create new ways of doing things and external ties.
In this type of project there is always an emphasis on the importance of sustainability, often understood to mean the economic viability of the project. Mridula questioned this vision, stating instead that sustainability should transcend the merely financial and focus on appropriation by the community. This is related to the final aspect emphasised by the presenter: the importance of going beyond demand wheren it comes to ICT intervention strategies. New paradigms need to be created with the “beneficiaries” in all spheres: connectivity, software and content.
GEM workshop participants.