The institutional mechanisms of Sri Lanka have been altered for rapid development of society using ICT. Since 2005, the ICT Agency of Sri Lanka (ICTA) has provided leadership in the application of ICT. Its “e-Sri Lanka” program has achieved major economic, developmental, and social improvements.
In 2010, the government set up a separate Ministry for Information & Communication Technology to strengthen ICT leadership, advance the sector, and collaborate with other stakeholders. The country’s national broadband policy aims at narrowing down the digital divide by implementing an island-wide national backbone network that provides low cost and high-speed connectivity through competition among Internet service providers.
According to ICTA, the ICT literacy rate in Sri Lanka has grown from approximately 5 percent in 2004 to almost 40 percent in 2012. The target is 75 percent by 2015. Cellular phone penetration stands at over 100 percent, and broadband technologies are increasingly available in rural areas.
The rural telecenter network, or the “Nenasala” Centers (“Wisdom outlets” program), provide an important opportunity for rural population to learn. They promote partnerships among government and private organizations, individual entrepreneurs and civil society organizations to create a knowledgeable society. The Ministry of Technology & Research also operates another island-wide network named “Vidatha.” These multi service centers promote access to scientific and technological applications, including ICT, to rural communities.
One of the telecenters established in the periphery of a temple at Udubaddawa of Kurunegala district provides a wide range of facilities. This telecenter primarily focuses on improving local people’s English language and computer skills. During their leisure, young college students take regular English courses and Diplomas in computer courses at the center at subsidized rates. It currently provides a six-month long computer Diploma course. Students can sit for a standardized test after the completion of the course, and can acquire the certificate at a low cost.
The ICT Center not only serves as a learning center but also acts as a business unit. People can pay their utility bills and access internet facility at a nominal cost. It also serves as a coordinating agency for other distance learning units scattered over small villages where young kids are taught English by local teachers. Sometimes, religious centers are used as learning centers, which attracts a lot of people.
Today, more than 300 IT and Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) companies operate in Sri Lanka, serviced by a workforce of over 60,000, and generating US $400 million in exports. Sri Lanka expects to create a 100,000-strong workforce in the ICT sector in the next four to five years.
According to Nepal Telecommunication Authority (NTA), in March 15, 2013, telephone penetration in Nepal had reached 73.88 percent, and internet penetration had reached more than 23 percent. More than 90 percent of them use mobile devices to connect to the internet.
This indicates growing demand for technological knowledge and tools among the general public, a hopeful sign for a country situated next to technological giants like India and China.
The question is: Have we adapted to this need? The answer, in the existing investment scenario and government IT policy, is a bold “NO”. The creation of ICT centers in rural Nepal is the need of the hour. There have been some efforts to create similar centers, but they have not been very successful in generating results because of the absence of strong policy backing and lack of understanding of the needs of local people.
No rural Nepali will reject the opportunity to learn computer skills and English language, if the lessons are available at a reasonable rate at their doorsteps. In this connection, ICT centers with physical resources should be started, through which people can learn computer skills and access the Internet. The telecommunication companies of Nepal should also think of joining hands with the government and social organizations to create a technologically sound workforce.
People are charged for free passport forms, migrant workers are cheated with fake airline tickets, farmers are paid low price for their products by middlemen. Many of these problems, as well as many other social problems, can be easily addressed by incorporating technology in daily life.
The growth achieved by Sri Lanka in last 7-8 years is replicable, but only given strong political will. Both top-down and bottom-up approaches are needed to institutionalize technological growth and bring about desired social change.
The author recently won South Asia Regional Grant Competition on ICT and Youth jointly organized by The World Bank and Microsoft® in Colombo, Sri Lanka