By FN DHAKA, Bangladesh, 31 May 2006
Jamming the power of community radio, landing submarine cables smoothly, lowering telephony costs in a price-sensitive part of the globe… these and many more issues are on top of the mind of campaigners working on ICTD (information and communication technology for development) in South Asia, a populous part of the planet.
There is a lot of scope to learn from each other, in a sub-continent, which has a lot of similarities and common battles to fight… but which is unfortunately also suspicious about overcoming traditional rivalries and working together.
At APC’s recent ‘ICT policy in South Asia’ workshop held in Dhaka, Bangladesh, a number of campaigners got a chance to meet up with techies and a few academics to share space and ideas.
For a region in which visa restrictions are sometimes stringent, blocking the easy flow of people across borders, this was a useful face-to-face encounter.
IT-focused free software campaigners got a chance to listen to and share with those talking about complex policy issues, while gender campaigners exchanged with those focused on community television.
It was an odd match of extremes: on the one hand, there were young techies from South Korea who have all the tools in the world available, but growing curbs on their freedom to use them (in the form of restrictive laws or ‘intellectual property’).
On the other hand, there were people struggling to get access to the bandwidth they needed so badly. And, without doubt, the participants from the sub-continent of South Asia felt equally angry at being blocked away from low-powered and low-cost community radio.
APC’s Korean friends spoke about laws that make it tough for people to express themselves online unless they reveal their identity. Data-retention was another issue faced there.
While South Korea is rather far away from South Asia, both in its reality and its geography, there were some lessons to learn here and question the myth that ‘development’ alone takes us to some kind of utopia.
UK-educated and Sri Lanka-based Ayesha Zainudeen of LIRNEasia was there to elaborate on how the poor actually use their cell phones. A colleague of hers pointed to options and models to lower cell-phone costs, and the need to protect the non-affluent citizen against cell-phone theft.
In a part of the planet where poverty and innovation can often march together, this small-but-growing network of campaigners is also showing quite some innovation in making sure it uses a wide array of tools.
If you thought India’s telecom story was all that great, then Rekha Jain was there to remind you that "the devil is in the details".
Jain is from the prestigious Centre for Telecom Policy Studies at the Indian Institute of Management. She was quick to indicate the many problem areas in India’s telecom programme, which often go simply unnoticed.
Rohan Samarajiva of LIRNEAsia, Sri Lanka, had this insightful story of lobbying for effective submarine cable usage in Bangladesh, and he focussed on "what civil society can do in (the campaign over) regulation".
Laywer Rishi Chawla of GIPI India (Global Internet Policy Initiative India) looked at regulatory reforms for the internet in India.
Many found common ground, as issues across sometimes hostile borders were shown to be affecting all in similar ways. For instance, tackling headaches in local language computing affected both Pakistan and India (over the Urdu language they share) and India and Bangladesh (over the Bengali language they share).
Some prominent engineers and telecom experts, who have been supportive or involved in campaigns, participated in the meet, bringing to it their own significant skills and talent.
Vickram Crishna of radiophony.com, in India, was assertive about the need to open up wireless internet channels for grassroot development purposes, instead of keeping these useful waves as an exclusivity for the affluent and government.
ICT-and-disaster-management is another theme that came up in the second half of April. This was to be expected in a region that has had more than its fair share in terms of earthquakes, a tsunami, and other disasters.
But where humans wreck the violence – as the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka demonstrates – ICT is also being closely looked at. In the case that came up here, a television programme aimed at youth used rap-music messages to carry the message of peace, and express the futility of violent conflict.
Besides the localisation of free software, a key issue in a region which has a plethora of languages – literally a few thousand – the issue of balancing growing copyright pressures with the interests of the readers and audiences, emerged.
Namita Malhotra – a young lady-lawyer from Bangalore in India armed with a laptop carrying fierce skull-and-crossbones – is part of an organisation that builds alternatives to the intensely restrictive copyrights our planet is pushing headlong to.
Local content and the media’s role were on the agenda too, and so was debunking ICTD myths – with some critical words coming in about telecentres, and Sri Lanka’s cause célèbre but government-run ‘community’ radio station at Kothamalee.
Andrew Garton, from a continent away in Australia, had very interesting visions to share with his ‘EngageMedia’ collaborative platform (http://www.engagemedia.org/).
Issues that came up also suggest that gender, communication rights, and the need for a more political dialogue on ICTD in South Asia, multi-stakeholder strategies, and microfinance, are priorities among the not-for-profit community here.
Beyond the policy issues, getting a chance to interact off-track was essential to forge a new dynamic among those who attended this APC-sponsored consultation.