The linkage between university and disadvantaged communities in creating opportunities to access updated information, has been considered a successful model.
Information technology and associated programs, in both the private and public sectors in Vietnam, have experienced a major surge in this decade. The government’s initiative to put Post, Telecom and Cultural Points (PTCPs) in communes around the country is a major part of developing the telecommunications infrastructure in rural and remote areas. These kinds of interventions support Vietnam’s goal of tripling Internet access by 2010, thereby reaching 35% of its 82 million people. The vigor of IT growth in Vietnam is also reflected in the 2006 commitment by the governments of Vietnam and Korea to construct a US$20 million information technology college in Da Nang. Significantly, recently promulgated Decree 57/2006 provides a step toward the evolution of e-commerce in Vietnam.
In its focus on improving the livelihood of disadvantaged youth in Vietnam, the project described in these pages faced the major challenge of pushing the application of information technology and the Internet beyond on-line games and chat rooms that are the prime attraction for users today. It was important to develop these same users’ experience and skills so that they could access vital livelihood information more effectively through ICT applications, and thereby add noticeable and perceived value to their lives.
The TUAF-Cornell ICT initiative
Recognizing the potential of universities in the ICT4D movement, and building on their own experiences in other development programs, the Thai Nguyen University of Agriculture and Forestry (TUAF) and Cornell University designed an initiative in the nation’s Northern Mountainous Area, to demonstrate the viability of higher education institutions as supporters of community-based telecentres. The project was driven by its objective to promote agricultural and rural development in the mountainous region and thereby improve the welfare of the disadvantaged population in the region.
The Asia Pacific Economic Commission’s (APEC) Education Foundation is the key supporter, with its own agenda to foster the use of information technologies to address the plight of disadvantaged youth. With that funding, TUAF has started on the incubation of community-based rural telecentres which it will continue to support with a variety of resources. The TUAF-Cornell ICT4D project is linking with other information technology initiatives at the university. These are supported by the APEC Digital Opportunity Center (ADOC), the Institute for Information Industry, and VIA Technologies, all headquartered in Taiwan. To illustrate how the project goes ‘beyond chat rooms’, the following are ICT4D activities associated directly with the APECEF grant.
(1) Implement training programs, for disadvantaged youth, on how to use information technologies for accessing government and non-government resources such as those related to employment opportunities and benefit programs.
(2) Providing ICT training and internships in telecentres so that they might gain experience for employment in the many community-level Post, Telecom and Culture Points around the country, and in Vietnam’s expanding information technology environment.
(3) Providing opportunities to learn various skills, such as those in agriculture and commerce, through non-formal education and distance learning, provided in telecentres.
(4) Developing user-friendly ICT materials related to family welfare (including health, education, employment, governance) and making them readily accessible through telecentres.
The Northern Mountainous Area (NMA), the target area of this ICT4D project, consists of 16 provinces. It covers an area of 110,000 sq. km (34% area of the whole country). It has a population of approximately 16 million (20% of Vietnam’s population). 35 ethnic minority groups reside in the area. Due to the difficulties of the region, the NMA is considered to be the poorest and most disadvantaged region of Vietnam. The objectives and the goals of the ICT4D project are in line with Vietnam government priority policies on applications of ICT for socioeconomic development 2005-2020. The support of the ICT4D project for the remote and disadvantaged area also matches the major policies and measures of Vietnam government to promote sustainable growth and poverty reduction.
Implementation and working
Soon after the ICT4D project was approved by APECEF, a Project Implementation Committee (PIC) was established at TUAF with representation from various communes. The project has been co-managed by TUAF, Cornell University and local partners through the PIC. The PIC delegates day-to-day management to the ICT4D Project Manager, a senior official at TUAF. The Project Manager is in regular contact with PIC member and the head of the Commune Implementation Group (CIG), as needed to ensure that all stakeholders make joint decisions about the management and administration of the component.
The project has been implemented based on a participatory approach. Participants’ responsibilities were clearly defined at the beginning. The Project Implementation Committee’s responsibilities included broader planning and policy issues. The Commune Implementation Group focused on more ground level activities. The implementation approach of the project focuses on creating an integrated system of universities and telecenters to promote agricultural and rural development in the mountainous region of the country, thereby improving the welfare of the disadvantaged population as illustrated in Chart 1.
On-line and off-line services
Due to the remoteness of the participating communes and the consequent cost of Internet connectivity, the ICT information system was designed to include both on-line and off-line access to information resources. Persons seeking information at a commune’s telecenter might use “local” media such as material stored on a computer hard-drive or on audio cassettes/CD/DVDs, or use the Internet to get at information resources that are more timely, or those not available from the telecenter’s off-line inventory. The off-line access system makes it more economical to obtain some information as compared to getting it “live” on-line. The off-line communication resources are updated monthly by experts from TUAF.
Initiating the project
Several important steps were necessary for getting the project started. One of these was selecting the communes which had to meet particular criteria including:
Located in a remote area
High percentage of ethnic minority groups (>70%)
High household poverty rate (>25% as national standards)
Poor access to public communication system
Based on these criteria, six communes in 6 districts belonging to 3 provinces (Thai Nguyen, Tuyen Quang and Bac Kan provinces) were selected. Although the project people were familiar with the communities and the general needs for the project, there were systematic efforts to document a variety of issues in a very short period of time. These included: conducting a survey to build a database related to the project area, organizing a stakeholder workshop, assessing community-level information needs, identifying the kinds of ICTs and other facilities needed in the telecenters, and setting up and equipping a Communication Center at TUAF, which was to be the hub of the rural communication system. Within a time span of less than one year, the project set up the commune telecenters, designed training programs and materials, and conducted training for the Center staff, students, community volunteers and disadvantaged youths, and produced communication resources (distance learning package, web pages, CD). The rural people themselves were instrumental in launching the project especially considering that the communes provided space and day-to-day management of the telecenters. Local communities contributed a room (24 m2) for the telecenters and a staff to operate the telecenter. The telecenters operate as a small enterprises charging for some services so that they can cover the costs of electricity and the Internet fees. TUAF provided a large room (45 m2) for the Communication Center, and also allocated one fulltime staff member to maintain and operate the center and maintain the focus on serving disadvantaged students.
Development of communication resources for disadvantaged youths
TUAF has mobilized a large number of lecturers and researchers to produce and develop communication resources for the Communication Center at TUAF and the telecenters in the communes. As a result, an electronic library containing 58,000 pieces of communication materials has been developed which includes information related to agriculture and rural development, health, education, environment protection, gender issues, etc. Because disadvantaged youths are a major target group of the ICT4D project, TUAF set some criteria for involving youths as beneficiaries of the project. These included, Age (16