Telecentres are the only windows to Information Communication Technology in many parts of Sri Lanka. These are run by Telecentre operators, who have been trained to disperse this information. A workshop organized by Sarvodaya Shramadana Sangamaya and supported by the Information and Communications Technology Agency (ICTA) and Telecentre.org, a collaborative initiative of IDRC in Canada and Microsoft was held on the 26th and 27th September for these operators. Titled “Networking Grassroots – ICT for People” the workshop provided a platform for these operators to share their experiences, table their problems, and seek solutions as a group. The program also aimed to develop the capabilities of the operators.
A total of 105 operators took part in the event. A third of the participants were Sarvodaya Telecentre or Village Information Centre operators while there was also a substantial number of operators from the Nanasala program, the telecentre scheme run by the ICTA. A number of participants were from other organizations such as the Department of Agriculture, the Ministry of Media and Communications, Sewalanka, the Ministry of Science and Technology, and Arthacharya Foundation, and there were also some IDRC operators.
This residential workshop was held at the Sarvodaya Headquarters at Moratuwa.
September 26th witnessed the start of a new era in the history of the ICT program at Sarvodaya. It was the first day of a two-day workshop that aims at improving the skills of Telecentre operators from throughout Sri Lanka and this is the first such workshop to be held in the island. The opening ceremony was kicked off by the lighting of the traditional oil lamp. Mrs. Udani Mendis, the Acting Executive Director of Sarvodaya, started the proceedings with a welcome speech.
Mrs. Mendis welcomed Mr. Alessandro Pio, the chief guest and the Country Director of the Asian Development Bank, to the Sarvodaya family and the opening ceremony of the workshop. She went on to introduce the event as a participatory workshop for all Telecentre operators and said that this is an opportunity for youngsters who are involved with ICT in Sri Lanka to exchange ideas and learn more.
Mrs. Mendis took time out to welcome and thank Mr. Mark Surman, the Managing Director of Telecentre.org, IDRC, Canada, who is to facilitate the workshop, Professor V.K. Samaranayake, whom she identified as the father of ICT in Sri Lanka, Mr. Manju Haththotuwa, the CEO and Managing Director of the ICTA, Mr. Chanditha Samaranayake, representative of Microsoft, and Dr. Harsha Liyanage, who is in charge of the IT program at Sarvodaya.
Mrs. Mendis stated that the workshop was a chance for all Telecentre operators from throughout the country, who do their task so efficiently, to gain broader knowledge. She also read out a message from the president of Sarvodaya, Dr. A.T. Ariyaratne. In his message, the president said that it was important to teach people about IT correctly and create an enlightenment of our society so that it can be ensured that we control information instead of information controlling us. Mrs. Mendis concluded by feting the efforts of everyone within the IT unit in Sarvodaya for organizing the workshop.
Next it was Mr. Surman’s turn to conduct a speech. With his first sentences, he stated the aim of the event. “This is not my workshop,” he said. “It’s your workshop. We are going to answer the question, how can we create a Telecentre family in Sri Lanka?” He asked everyone to turn to the person next to them and talk for fifteen seconds about their aspirations for the workshop.
Mr. Surman said that the reason he asked everyone to do this was to state from the beginning that this was not going to be two days of listening to the people on the podium, but about looking into each other’s eyes, finding new friends, and learning to work together in the future. He said that those on the podium would provide some framework to the events of the next two days, but the workshop was basically all about the participants. “We want you to find that you’re not alone,” he said. “That it’s not you just struggling by yourself, but that there are other people facing the same problems.” He emphasized the need to build a Telecentre family in Sri Lanka and the need for each center to look beyond its immediate village.
Mr. Surman said that the Telecentre.org program, which is a part of the IDRC, a Canadian NGO, received a lot of strength from the Microsoft Unlimited program and other financial supporters, but most of all, from people like the workshop participants, who create networks and create hopes. He concluded by saying that he and his organization could help in Sri Lanka in two ways: by sharing the experience of others throughout the world and by increasing collaboration between Telecentres in SL.
Mr. Manju Haththotuwa made the next speech. He started by thanking the organizers of the workshop, especially those at Sarvodaya. “I entered this room and I was like, wow, the atmosphere,” he said. “Seeing you made me realize that in the last eight months we have been able to mobilize this group. We have been able to empower rural SL to empower your fellow citizens, villagers and make a different SL, one that is more knowledgeable, equitable, and developed.”
Mr. Haththotuwa thanked Mr. Pio for returning from a trip abroad to participate in the workshop. He went onto state that the IT program is a big initiative of the government of Sri Lanka and to thank the organizers and participants on behalf of the government.
“I don’t want to talk at length,” he concluded. “I can see that these organizers can’t wait to start, to bring to you an international experience. I hope you will take this opportunity to learn from this experience. I hope there will be lots of yahoo groups, lots of electronic groups, lots of pals, and you keep on sharing the pain, the challenges, and the learning.”
Professor V.K. Samaranayake had the next opportunity to address the Inaugural Sessions. He said that this was a very happy occasion for him and went on to state that the Telecentre program is a big part of the effort he and others have made since 1960 to bring computers to Sri Lanka. He said that in the sixties, they introduced computers to the country and with the introduction of the personal computer in the 1980s, they were able to spread the use of the computer in Sri Lanka. He stated that internet facilities that came in the 1990s gave a huge boost to this initiative.
“When we first used internet in the universities, we realized that this could not be limited to us, but had to be taken to everyone,” Professor Samaranayake said. “We realized that this could not be done through just technology, but through people. We knew that the best people to take this to the village were Sarvodaya.” He said that they had been fortunate to find an able person to do this in Dr. Harsha and that Dr. A.T. had been very enthusiastic about the whole process.
Professor Samaranayake said that the program has come a long way since its inauguration in 1996. He stated that it had been greatly helped by the high literacy rate in Sri Lanka. He identified the high levels of creativity among Sri Lankans as another factor that benefited the program and also noted how much it was assisted by the interest that was shown from all walks of life. “We cannot do this just from the city,” Professor Samaranayake said. “We need the enthusiasm of the village and the people gathered here today are people from the village who share this enthusiasm. We are happy to have brought everyone under one roof like this. The aim of this is to share everyone’s views and experiences.”
He said that even today we use various tools of technology as a means of getting on in our day-to-day lives, but that we need to use this technology for national development. He talked about the fast pace of growth of technology internationally and that Sri Lankans too, needed to take it both to the city and the village and use if for development of the country. He stressed the need for everyone to get together towards this, not only people within the IT field or Sarvodaya, but every single person who uses these centers. He noted that it was essential that Sri Lanka utilize the skills of everyone who is proficient in the fields and emphasized the need to use university graduates who possess these skills.
“When we look at the past, we see how far we had to travel to find information,” Professor Samaranayake said. “Think of even the Lord Buddha, who had to walk miles and miles to find knowledge. But think of us today, the way we can obtain information from our homes. However, it is also our responsibility to use this information in a conscientious manner.”
The professor stressed the importance of private enthusiasm for this technology. He said that it is not only about a spreading and learning of technology, but about using this technology for national development and using it responsibly and enthusiastically. He concluded by expressing his belief that a lot of knowledge would be gained from these two days and thanking the organizers for creating this opportunity.
Mr. Alessandro Pio started his speech by stating how encouraged he was to see collaboration between governments, NGOs like Sarvodaya, and commercial institutions like Microsoft in programs of development. He said that we had come to see this sort of collaboration in the reconstruction efforts after the Tsunami and that we should always keep in mind to join hands to benefit everyone.
Mr. Pio went onto talk about his personal history with IT. He recalled his days as university professor in Italy where he was one of the first faculty members to encourage the establishment to invest in laptop computers when they first came into the market. When this effort failed in the face of a lack of monetary resources, Mr. Pio had taken a personal initiative to go talk to the suppliers to ask them give concessions with which to buy computers.
Mr. Pio stated that over his career, he has changed his mind about IT. At the beginning he had believed that the best means of technology had to always be used, that he had the means to an ends in mind and not the end itself. However, he had realized the flaw in this thinking and noted that everyone should keep this perspective in mind.
Mr. Pio also noted the impact technology has made in rural areas. He talked about grameen banks and grameen phones and what a difference these cellular phones had made in rural parts. He said that he would like to leave three messages with the workshop participants. “Echoing what Dr. AT said: is information going to control us or are we going to control information?” he said. “We can’t control information, but we have to teach people how to choose information.” He elaborated on how he used to live and work in Vietnam, where there is a similar cultural and agricultural background as Sri Lanka, but there is a strict, one-party system. He noted SL has a very different way, a very pluralistic society, which sometimes creates too much debate, but has still laid a foundation for people to choose their own information. Due to this, it was important to teach people to choose what they want.
Mr. Pio’s second message had to do with the impact ICT has on society. He pointed out the painting of a village that was put up in the room and noted that we have to watch out for the impact that ICT will have on this beautiful picture. He said that Sri Lanka is actually very different from other Asian countries where the attraction of bright lights has made cities like Manila and Bangkok turn into expanses of slums. He said that people have moved in droves to these cities with great hopes and found their situation worse in every single way other than economics. Mr. Pio stated that this had been avoided in Sri Lanka, but that the country now needed to concentrate on advancing in the use of IT while preventing this great migration from the village to the city. He said that IT needs to be used to create a better economic situation for rural folk so that they will be encouraged to remain in the villages.
Mr. Pio’s third message was about a new divide that ICT is creating. He said that it was not the usual one everyone talked about: the gap between the urban and rural areas, but about the divide between the old and young. Mr. Pio explained how he always went to his sixteen-year-old whenever he encountered a problem with technology. He said that it is always young people who get excited by new technology. “I’m fifty two,” he said. “But with the ages of older people in SL, someone of my age is still relatively young, and we cannot afford people to be living for thirty, forty more years without technology. Without knowing about this, how can they teach young people how to choose what to gain from ICT?” Mr. Pio noted how older people needed to learn about new technology so that they could remain as active members of their society. Before the advent of the computer, they were the teachers of these young people and they need to remain to be this.
Mr. Pio concluded by stressing the need to remember all of these factors even as Sri Lanka pushes towards development in the field of IT. He encouraged the participants to bring the wealth of their experiences in the IT field back to the organizers. “There is nothing better than a reality check,” he said. “And you will be surprised how some solution of yours that you think is not important can help someone else.”
Mrs. Neetha Ariyaratne made the concluding speech of the Opening Ceremony. She said that it was not important for her to talk about IT because a lot of ideas had already been discussed at the ceremony. Instead she noted that it was important that IT be spread in Sri Lanka while also keeping the Sarvodaya ideals of economic and spiritual development of villages in mind. She stressed the importance of giving a message to the hearts of people while giving the message of IT to their minds. “We have a great responsibility in using ICT to develop our villagers, to give our children a message to their hearts,” she said. “Sometimes we have seen that this new technology can mean ruin to our young people and our children. So when we take this to the villages, we have to keep in mind what can and cannot benefit from this.” Mrs. Ariyaratne explained how Sri Lanka is facing a lot of different problems today. She noted how the environment is being gradually destroyed, how the values of our cultures are being swept away, and how violence has become ingrained within our society. “We have a great responsibility to eradicate all this even as we take ICT to the villages,” she said. “That is why I said as we give messages to the brain, we should all take care to give this message to the heart too.”
Mrs. Ariyaratne noted how the Telecentres had come in use when the Tsunami struck. She said that technology not only provided means for people to get information, but also for funds from abroad to be transferred to the country. She also talked about a topic that Mr. Pio had touched on: how young people come to the city to find employment. She advised the workshop participants that they would be doing a great service if they provide people they educate in IT with employment opportunities within villages so that they would not be tempted to come to the city.
She concluded by thanking all the institutions that helped organize the workshop like Microsoft, IDRC, and the ICTA. She also thanked Mr. Mark Surman, Professor V.K. Samaranayake, and everyone present and hoped that everyone who would be staying in the next two days would be able to reap all the benefits of the workshop.
After the conclusion of the Opening Ceremony, a number of working sessions were organized. These required the active participation of the workshop attendees. During the first day, the participants were divided into fourteen groups and three sessions were held. On the second day, the participants formed into ten groups and a further three sessions were conducted.