In this new knowledge-based society, access to information and knowledge have become essential resources for development.
As a continent, our future and survival depends upon our willingness to harness the new information and communication technologies. A nation unable to join this new economic order, unable to harness the power of ICT, is effectively locked out of the new global economy, and forced to remain a marginal player on the world economic stage. .
In Africa and other parts of the developing world, development agencies, non-governmental organisations and the private sector are searching for new and better ways to harness the power of information technology (IT) to meet economic, social, educational and development objectives.
Community information centres (CICs) are shared information and communication facilities for people in rural and isolated areas.
CICs range from a one room facility providing a narrow range of services to facilities that provide training and a wide range of development-oriented services. Generally, CICs can be classified into two broad categories - those with a purely commercial orientation, and those with a community/education service orientation.
Commercial oriented CICs are those established with a profit motive. They provide basic communication services such as telephones, fax and photocopying. A sizable percentage provide secretarial as well as computer-based services.
Community/education-oriented communication centres provide basic services to address the needs of a given community. Among other things the centres aim to
a) tap the untapped potential of the people they serve,
b) organise resources and expertise nationwide,
c) foster the emergence of local capability, and
d) promote a unique and comprehensive approach to servicing the multiple needs of people they serve through the innovative use IT.
While they are not profit-oriented, almost all of them charge basic fees for their services. Web-browsing at some non-commercial centres with donor support is priced usually at the same level as web-browsing at the commercial centres.
The Ghana Investment Fund for Telecommunications (GIFTEL) – a unit under the Ministry of Communications- provides a hybrid model of for-profit and non-profit CICs in selected locations in Ghana.
The primary focus of GIFTEL’s CICs is to create rural access to information communication services. This is where the majority of the population live and face a number of economic, social, cultural and legal barriers to their advancement.
CICs in such environments provides opportunities for users to have access to electronic connectivity. Such access provides rural people with instantaneous information on what their counterparts in other countries are doing.
CICs are needed in such an environment because the transition to an information society usually brings growing inequality, since not all people are able to take advantage of new opportunities. CICs are innovative ways of addressing the multiple challenges confronting rural populations under a single roof, providing simple, single-point access to information and services to rural people.
Challenges Confronting CICs
Due to poor connectivity, inadequate infrastructure and human resource limitations, most of the centres provide very limited services. Low level of communication infrastructure in the rural areas make it difficult for such areas to be linked electronically. Rural communities, it is said, represent the 'last mile of connectivity'.
Currently, CICs operate in isolation. There is no centralization of standards, infrastructure, and services. There is the need for a coordinating body to bring some level of standardization and to determine the needs of existing CICs to enable them function better.
Such a centralised body could address issues such as equity of access; connectivity challenges confronted by some CICs, and human resource capacity building.
A national policy to drive the development and evolution of CICs will be a step in the right direction. Ghana, for example, has adopted an ICT for Accelerated Development Policy (ICT4D) to represent the ICT vision for the country.
The policy statement sets out the road map for the development of Ghana’s information society and economy. The document acknowledges the role that ICT can play in moving Ghana from where it is today to a knowledge-based society.
It addresses Ghana’s development challenges and how the development, deployment and exploitation of ICTs could accelerate the nation’s socio-economic development.
It also acknowledges the role being played by various organisations in moving the country’s ICT agenda forward.
The need for champions advocating the development of CICs cannot be overemphasized. Generally, rural people are less aggressive in shaping new public policies and taking advantage of existing rules to enhance their prospects for connection. Without CIC champions, the evolution and roll out of the model will not be rapid.
Also, the time has come for African governments to begin exploring the possibility of creating a Rural Information Technology Administration (RITA) under the Ministry of Local Government. The failure of the market to deliver information services to rural people necessitates an aggressive initiative to ensure that rural people are no longer comparatively disadvantaged when it comes to reaping the benefits of the information revolution.
Alternatively, RITA could be subsumed under a larger body, the Rural Utilities Services (RUS). Such a body should be charged with the responsibility of bringing utilities (such as electricity, telephones, the Internet, etc.) to rural areas.
Today we truly live in a global village, but it is a village with privileged 'information haves' and many 'information have-nots'. With the new technologies available to us, we have an opportunity to change this.
I believe it is possible to achieve the goal of what has now come to be known as universal access, that is, community access to basic telecommunications at reasonable distance through the establishment of CICs across the African continent.