Ungana-Afrika connecting advice centres in rural South Africa

By Ungana-Afrika PRETORIA, South Africa,

Rural communities are often marginalised because they are too small and remote for their development to be profitable. Government services are slow to reach these areas, and a lack of infrastructure makes communication difficult. The result is that community members are not informed about their rights as citizens, are not aware of opportunities available to them and are often denied basic services.

Fortunately paralegals operating from advice offices in these communities go some way to alleviating these challenges. Paralegals are accredited to assist community members with legal matters, such as facilitating access to government services and arbitrating disputes. APC-member in South Africa, Ungana-Afrika, is in the midst of beefing-up paralegals’ communication capacity and thereby extending rural services in 2007. Ten advice centres are already in the line of fire of Ungana-Afrika’s eRiders.

1 eRiders are technology assistance providers working in developing and transition countries. Ungana-Afrika is the leading eRider group in South Africa.

Support model for paralegals

Ungana-Afrika is working with the Karoo Centre for Human Rights (KCHR) to meet this need for communication and information in the paralegal sector. KCHR have a long history of providing support to advice offices in the Karoo region of the Western, Eastern and Northern provinces of South Africa. Their training and mentorship has helped paralegals from more than 45 advice offices provide legal services to their communities and run their offices effectively.

KCHR, like other paralegal groups, run workshops in their communities to inform people of their rights, and advocate on behalf of communities that are not receiving adequate services from the government.

Because of the vital development role they play in their region, KCHR needs to have effective access to relevant information.

Ungana-Afrika has a wealth of experience in developing and implementing capacity building services aimed at using technology effectively in development organisations. Partnering with KCHR for what it calls the Rural Connectivity Project, the APC member has enabled them to develop a few key services that will stimulate communication within the paralegal sector and facilitate greater access to relevant information.

Key services

The first thing that was done, was to negotiate discounted rate contracts with mobile service providers on behalf of participating advice offices. These contracts enable the advice offices to connect to the internet using the cellular network infrastructure. Compared with dial-up connections, the technology is simpler and more reliable, does not tie up the phone and has more predictable and controllable costs, making budgeting easier.

Each advice office was also given an email address under the adviceoffice.org.za domain name. This gives the paralegals greater credibility outside of the sector and encourages unity within the sector. It also reduces their reliance on faxes for sending and receiving documents.

Ungana-Afrika also managed to secure funding for providing each participating advice office with laser printers, a solution that is better adapted to paralegals’ needs.

In what is still to come, staff from Ungana-Afrika will visit each participating advice office a minimum of five times to make sure that they are able to use the technologies effectively in support of their paralegal work. These visits will focus on training, but will also cover troubleshooting and maintenance of the equipment. The importance of these visits in giving paralegals the confidence and skills to use these new technologies cannot be overstated. Virtual support will also be given to advice offices through telephone and email in the intervening periods.

Wherever possible, Ungana-Afrika will provide training at paralegal workshops. These trainings will focus on the effective use of computers and related technologies for paralegal service delivery. Once the project is concluded, the paralegals should have the skills to maintain their own technology.

Preliminary results

Ungana-Afrika’s first training event with paralegals was held in January 2007 at a paralegal workshop organised by KCHR. Ungana-Afrika’s Rudi von Staden showed the seventeen participants gathered in the computer lab of the local primary school how to use webmail to communicate. The paralegals also used their new email addresses for the first time. Many participants had not used the internet before, but caught on quickly and soon emails were flying around the room.

It was also clear that the direct support component of the Rural Connectivity Project will be very valuable. It is easy for experienced computer users to take the complexity of learning to use a new application like email for granted. Focused and dedicated personal instruction and encouragement is nonetheless essential for new computer users.

The first site visits were also undertaken around the same period. Over five days eRider von Staden travelled more than 2,500 km to reach advice offices in five communities: Klipplaat, Jansenville, Mqanduli, Cala, and Indwe. The first visit was focused on establishing internet connectivity and leaving them a working printer to improve productivity. It was interesting to note that four of the five advice offices had dial-up internet subscriptions that were not being used because of the complexity in setting up the connections. In early March, an obviously relieved hard-working von Staden sent an email to APCNews saying: “Here I am online, direct to you from Klipplaat!”

“What’s totally clear from what I’ve seen in the field, is that advice offices have quite different needs relating to using technologies to communicate and access information,” von Staden explained, after getting back to the eRider home base of Pretoria. In some cases paralegals were given guidance on how to find out about funding opportunities through the internet. A logo was developed for one advice office seeking to improve their image and credibility. Another office was given instruction in using spreadsheets for budgeting. What was common to all though, is that they were shown how to use email effectively.

Further visits during the year will give the paralegals an introduction to the Central Case Management System developed by APC member SANGONeT, which they can use to effectively manage the cases they are working on, while at the same time contributing to a national understanding of the needs in these rural communities. Use of the Central Case Management System is dependent on internet access at the advice offices – further highlighting the importance of this project.

Contact information

To find out how you can support the Rural Connectivity Project, or for more information, please contact Rudi von Staden via email: rudi@ungana-afrika.org, or telephone: +27(0)12 809 0531. More information about the project and other Ungana-Afrika activities can be found on the group’s website: http://www.ungana-afrika.org

The support model used in this project is based on eRiding. For more information about the model, see www.eriders.net.

Photo: Rudi von Staden. 18 January
Xalanga Community Advice Centre in the town of Cala in the
Eastern Cape Midlands of South Africa

Author: —- (Ungana-Afrika)
Contact: rudi at ungana-afrika.org
Source: Ungana-Afrika
Date: 03/12/2007
Location: PRETORIA, South Africa
Category: Building Information Communities

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