Why it’s (net)working in Sri Lanka

May 12, 2006 § Leave a comment

Moratuwa, Sri Lanka – May 5+6, 2006: Last May, it became clear that Sri Lanka would be an excellent place to learn about building telecentre networks. The ingredients: small country; rapidly growing telecentre movement; supportive and active government ICT agency; NGO / government / private sector involvement in rural computing. And, as the mixing bowl: a desire amongst key players to collaborate.

One year in, we certainly are learning. The Sri Lanka telecentre family is amongst the fastest moving and most evolved of the projects supported by telecentre.org. Some quick observations what is feeding into this success so far:

  • Commitment and vision from government: Manju Haththotuwa and his team at ICTA have offered their support for the network concept right from the beginning, which is no small matter given the fact that they also have the task of rolling 1000 telecentres on their shoulders. They have shown a real commitment to the partnership with Sarvodaya.
  • Crossing boundaries at the grassroots: the bulk of the real partnership building, however, has been at the grassroots. Of the 150 people at this week’s meeting, about 60% were ICTA telecentre operators, 30% Sarvodaya and 10% other programs. In the first meeting, it was the Sarvodaya people who were most active, most likely because they felt they were on home turf. This is now switch around, with the village level ICTA people having gained the confidence and experience to step forward to make up the majority of regional leaders for the telecentre family project.
  • Participatory, grassroots events: telecentre.org is built on the principle that, if you want to build networks, you need events that allow people to build relationships and shape their own future. This means: circles of chairs, not rows; lots of small groups; everyone, including senior people and funders, participating as equals; mostly conversation, very little presentation. Sarvodaya’s 50 years of running mass community organizing efforts makes it excellent at these sorts of events. However, it’s not that hard to pick up – any network should be able to run events like this.
  • Emergence: beyond building social capital (aka network glue) these meetings use the collective intelligence of the group to surface new ideas and solutions in real time. Small groups working together come up with plans based on their daily experience, and they get integrated into where the whole network is going. Of course, Sarvodaya (and many others) has been doing this kind of thing long before Steven Johnson wrote a book called Emergence. Still, it’s nice to have a single word to describe what we are going for: organic growth and evolution rather than detailed planning and engineering.
  • Openness to ALL telecentre programs: it remains a bit of a push, but the principle that this network needs to actively engage people from ALL telecentre programs has been embedded in the Sri Lanka initiative from the beginning. Networks only work when they have this kind of openness. It’s not about including all the ‘right’ organizations, but rather about porous boundaries that allow anyone to come easily in or out.
  • Leadership: this is always a huge factor in anything like this. So, maybe that’s not a learning in itself. Yet, the particular constellation of leadership is quite interesting. Professor V. Samaraynake – the chair of ICTA and father of rural computing in Sri Lanka – has acted as an inspirational force and also a steadfast supporter of the ICTA / Sarvodaya collaboration. Sarvodaya Deputy Executive Director Harsha Liyanage has provided the real time network strategy, mapping out the way to organize gathering and motivate grassroots leaders. And, Sarvodaya Social Empowerment Director Ravindra Ariyawickrama has provided quiet, detailed, hands on management of a team of almost 20 you people working to make these network events happen. With just one, it wouldn’t work. Leadership on all three of these levels has been essential.

There is a great deal of richness in this learning, and in what has happened hear in Sri Lanka. The best news is that Harsha and Ravi are already starting to make connections with other networks supported through telecentre.org, swapping ideas on how to make networks succeed. So, some of these ingredients are already mixing into other networks, and other networks are adding ingredients to the Sri Lankan recipe. Note to self: the thing we need to do now is to start writing down these ideas as they are being shared.

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