February 2006

Roger Harris Associates (RHA)

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RHA supports local initiatives with rural ICTs that help the organisations to develop and test its own theories with regard to how ICTs can be used to bring meaningful development to poor rural Asians.

Roger Harris Associates (RHA) is a consulting and social entrepreneurial firm started in 2001 based around the work of Roger Harris in the area of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) for rural development and poverty reduction in Asia. It began with advising governments and international development agencies. In partnerships with a variety of like-minded collaborators from many walks of life, RHA only provides advice that is based on personal experiences and first-hand research.

Unlike many consultants, who never get mud on their shoes, the organisation draw its credibility directly from the work that it undertake in partnership with poor rural communities and the projects that it operate and support directly in the field. This has enabled RHA to generate its own knowledge base that can be used to influence governments and aid agencies in the promotion of development and poverty reduction that is based on the effective use of ICTs. The consulting work for ICTs for poverty reduction and rural development ranges from the design and implementation of both individual community-based development projects and wider progra-mmes involving multiple locations, as well as assisting in the formulation of government policy mechanisms for national schemes for e-Inclusion. At the same time, it operates and support local initiatives with rural ICTs that help the organisations to develop and test its own theories with regard to how ICTs can be used to bring meaningful development to poor rural Asians. 

Projects experimented
e-Bario, a pioneering project of RHA has set up a telecentre successfully in the remote and isolated community of Bario in order to demonstrate the benefits that ICTs could bring to an marginalised indigeneous people and now, continues to apply ICTs to the problems of rural life and to the opportunities that exist for the community to appropriate contemporary technologies for development.

Another initiative is Asian Encounters, which promotes a form of pro-poor community-based tourism through the use of local ICTs.  This project is working in six communities in four countries and is demonstrating how poor rural communities, mostly consisting of indigenous minorities, can make use of ICTs to promote local
tourism that is under their own control.  Once they have become accustomed to the use of ICTs for this purpose, they can proceed with using the technology to foster other forms of locally-appropriate development, for instance in support of education, health and agricultural activities.  One of the guiding principles of Asian Encounters is that ICTs can only contribute to sustainable local development if they are in support of, and subsumed within, effective development strategies that reflect the needs, problems, opportunities and aspirations of the communities in which they are deployed.  The relationship can be depicted as follows.

It has been recognised that Asia's indigenous minorities offer extremely rich cultural learning opportunities for the right type of sensitive traveller. RHA intends to help willing communities to make use of the potential for small-scale tourism to generate incomes in a way that ensures the terms of trade that are not dictated by outside interests and that retains the natural environment of the destination and its people.There is growing evidence of an emerging demand for this type of travel product, emphasising authentic homestay encounters with indigenous minority cultures in a manner that enables the community to retain control over the process. ICTs in the form of community telecentres offer a means for achieving this; becoming an income generating pump-primer for further ICT-led community development.

Challenges faced
Unfortunately, too many initiatives, at both grass roots and government levels, pay less attention to such innovative development strategies and begin with the technology strategy; perhaps implementing a network of telecentres, and only then beginning to think about how it can be used to foster effective development.  Invariably, the results of such an approach are disappointing and disillusionment quickly sets in. The challenge of formulating effective development strategies that use ICTs innovatively is much greater than implementing an ubiquitous network, but it is the latter that usually dominates project, programme and policy deliberations. International depictions of the digital divide, with all their e-Readiness rankings, confound the issue by sending the message that achieving e-Development is primarily a problem of ensuring all citizens have access to ICTs and are trained how to use them.  RHA's work has consistently refuted this misconception. 

In Bario, for instance, a great deal of effort was put into understanding the community before any technology was introduced. In this way, both the residents and project team developed a harmonised, demand-driven view of how ICTs would be used to contribute to the future of well-being of the community.

Its consulting activities with the Government of Malaysia in developing a framework for bridging the digital divide emphasises the value that underserved sections of society can obtain from ICTs that are meaningfully embedded within their day-to-day lives. Achieving this value of course requires far more than merely facilitating access to technology, demanding a more holistic approach to e-Inclusion. 

The UN has recently outlined the Socially Inclusive Governance for Information Society Framework, which is “a call to developing countries to shed the emphasis on connectivity and access and substitute it with a focus on inclusion for all groups in the population” (UN Global e-Government Readiness Report 2005).  The EU has similarly acknowledged that e-Inclusion and social inclusion are highly correlated. According to 'e-Inclusion: New Challenges and Policy Recommendations Report' by the
Expert Section of the e-Europe Advisory Group, “Access to ICT tools, networks and services, and even digital literacy, are merely preconditions for e-Inclusion. The issue is one of empowerment rather than access. Empowerment is not an automatic consequence of access”.

e-Inclusion for social inclusion
e-Inclusion begins therefore with a commitment to a more socially inclusive approach to poverty reduction and community development.  It then adopts ICTs in support of innovative practices that can achieve these pre-determined goals. RHA has long been associated with the development of rural telecentres; public
community development centres that use ICTs to deliver and exchange information that can be used to achieve demand-driven, community led development. It understands the importance of local facilitating conditions in the achievement of such goals and has developed a methodological approach, based on live experiences, to ensure that community telecentres are capable of delivering the full potential of ICTs to underserved communities.

It is called as 'Infomobilisation', which fosters an organic process of change in which collaborative groups explore and learn about problems and solutions in an iterative manner.  It is a collection of participative activities that ensure ICTs to have optimal impacts for development within the given communities.  It provides a methodology to design technology and social systems simultaneously through a participative and incremental process that does not require coercion and creates no resistance to change.  ICT architects and target community groups jointly determine how technology can be used to develop new ways of accomplishing group and community goals. 

The development of the 'Infomobilisation' methodology by RHA is a response to field level experiences that has encountered in conjunction with an appreciation of socio-technical systems theory.It believes in an approach to ICTs for poverty reduction that deals with the facts leading to actions and advice that are based on direct evidence rather than on unsubstantiated conviction. A great deal of potential is claimed for the use of ICTs to alleviate poverty, but much less is paid for understanding the circumstances that make it possible. Its research in India, for instance, highlights the importance of community acceptance of telecentre initiatives in achieving desirable outcomes, and the role that telecentre staff play in fostering acceptance by the community.

It advises programmes for widespread deployment of telecentres to take these lessons into account saving the risk of creating networks of under-utilised facilities. Subsidised cyber caf

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