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Last Updated: Saturday, 13 December, 2003, 09:02 GMT
Local content key for digitally divided

By Clark Boyd
Technology correspondent in Geneva

African women learning to use a computer, BBC
Language can be a barrier to learning
The internet has spread its tentacles throughout the world, reaching communities all over the globe.

But it is quite another thing to help local people figure out what to do with the technology once they get it.

For some development activists who attended the UN World Summit on the Information Society in Geneva, the question was not going online, but about the content on the web.

"If a person comes up to the terminal and there is nothing there in their language that is relevant to their lives, then why should they bother?" said Peter Armstrong, Director of Oneworld.net, a leading website for development issues.

"That is what we are focusing on, tools that allow them to input their own local content in their own local language, at no cost.

"Let's give them the tools they need to provide the information services that will actually make a difference in their lives," he said.

Technology tools

Oneworld.net is partnering with local groups in developing countries to try to do just that.

In Nairobi, Kenya, they are working with AfriAfya, a local group that focuses on health issues.

AfriAfya's Nancy Ndongo says that Kenya's rural populations used to have to work hard to share the information they needed.

"They would have to walk from one person to the other. Mail is not possible because the postal service is very poor in these areas.

"With computers, with these technologies, it's a lot faster," she said.

The result is that many of these communities can use the internet to share information vital to their survival.

"It is about HIV and Aids affecting the communities, health issues that are specific in those communities.

"Even jobs and agriculture we get from the communities. And also about cultural and traditional beliefs, we get from the communities," she said.

Leonard Tleane, DireqLearn
Tleane: 'Africa is in deep trouble'
Similar local content projects are under way in places like Brazil, Bangladesh and El Salvador.

In South America's Andean region, one group is working to make people self-sufficient in sharing their information.

"What they need is space to communicate, to express their ideas and their voices," said Ana Maria Ponce, who works with InfoAndina in Lima, Peru.

InfoAndina uses computers and the internet to help local farmers share information about conservation and resource management amongst themselves.

"My job is not to provide the content. I think they have a lot of content to provide and they are responsible for their own empowerment.

"What they need is the skill to develop the content," she explained.

Big problems

At the opening of the Geneva digital divide summit, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan talked about this so-called content divide between richer and poorer nations.

He noted that nearly 70% of all websites are in English, which can crowd out local content and views.

In African countries, a South African organisation called DireqLearn is working to address that imbalance.

DireqLearn provides customised educational tools to hundreds of schools in Namibia, Nigeria and South Africa.

The idea, says DireqLearn's Leonard Tleane, is to give students the knowledge they want, in a language that they can understand.

"When we go to Western Africa we use French, in East Africa we use Ki-Swahili. So that people can understand it because it is very difficult for them to understand what is happening.

"They feel ashamed to use the technology. They don't understand how it works," he said.

Given Africa's problems, Mr Tleane believes the youth need access to good information more than ever before.

"Africa is in deep trouble. We've got malaria, we've got HIV and we've got crime and all these things," he said.

"But all this information is on the internet. If you can get this technology to them, they can learn about what's happening out in the world.

"This technology can help them know what's happening and how to look after themselves."

The last thing the youth need, added Mr Tleane, is to see a computer screen filled with nothing but pop-up ads, and offers to download the latest single by Britney Spears.

Clark Boyd is technology correspondent for The World, a co-production between BBC World Service and WGBH Radio-Boston


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