Two Telecentres in Rural Columbia:  A case study in considering community venues for volunteering and co-op placement

* Acknowledgement for Prof. Mel Simms in establishing a community and nonprofit technology arena for the computer science graduate student co-op program.

* This case study is a summary of the article “The Impacts of Community Telecenters in Rural Colombia” by Amariles et al from the Journal of Community Informatics special issue on Telecentres and is taken from the author’s analysis of “The Centrality of Telecentres and Community Technology Centers” (pp.10-13).

* Be sure to check out the discussion questions at the end of the summary to help guide your considerations.

* Background on CTCs and Telecentres, the universal resource for low-income, low literacy, and other “disadvantaged” populations

  • what they are:  access and learning places… that supplement existing programs and services and have standalone and partnership dimensions… diverse and protean…
  • the newest basic part of the social infrastructure: from 6 to 20,000 in the U.S. in the 1990’s and early 2000’s

* MetroBoston’s exemplary network of CTCs and Northeastern neighborhoods, from 50 in the 1990’s to the present — three hours/week volunteer options and outcomes

* For a wider range of technology uses, applications, and opportunities with nonprofits, see Deborah Finn’s follow-up case study.

* * * * *

The abstract for the full study reads as follows: This paper evaluates the impacts of two community telecenters on their host organizations and on the rural areas they served. Awareness and use of telecenters by rural households were low, as was users’ ability to articulate information needs. Significant institutional impacts occurred in the NGOs that hosted the telecenters. The results suggest that “sustainable expansion of ICTs in rural areas of developing countries may best be achieved by working through local organizations willing to incorporate the technologies into their work, while striving with the communities they serve to build local capacity to use information and ICTs.”

The two Colombian non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working with indigenous farming communities to establish centers to contribute to agricultural sustainability, CorpoTunía in central Cauca, and the Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca (ACIN,, working with the collaborative support of the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT).  While initially focused on the impacts on individual users, the results they found were actually minimal, if not disappointing, albeit with significant lessons gained.  Surprisingly, the impact of supporting the telecenters on the host organizations was major.

The central hypothesis of the impact study was that through telecenters individuals would obtain information that could help them make better decisions, with a special eye on food security, social and economic development, and natural resource management. To document how people were using the telecenters, user surveys were conducted for a one month period in late 2001. It’s notable that all told the study rested upon a total of only 39 surveys that were collected.  The first reported findings were not surprising: early users tended to be fairly young and well educated; at CorpoTunía the most common reason for visiting the telecenter was related to school, while at ACIN it was for work. Few telecenter users searched for specialized information on the Internet (17%). They came mainly for computer training, to obtain general information (related to school assignments or availability of scholarships, for example), or to communicate with friends and relatives. “Cases of individuals obtaining technical or economic information for use in development-related decisions were scarce.”

However disappointing, the significant lessons here were at least two-fold.  First, the few cases of effective use that did occur were quite instructive. Members of a local association of flower producers, for example, received training with a view to identifying the requirements for breaking into export markets. A CorpoTunía agronomist helped them consult other associations’ web sites and the group determined that, in order to export their flowers, they would need to improve their infrastructure, meet new demands in terms of product volume and quality, obtain credit, and so forth. The information access had enabled the group to clarify its vision for the future and to identify specific needs.  This led to a second general conclusion:  If community telecenters were to become effective as a source of information for farmers, the poor, and other actors in rural development, “then the needs of these people must be defined more concretely, and more must be done to identify or create reliable information sources that are genuinely useful to them. This is consistent with the growing recognition that policies that seek to use ICTs to promote pro-poor development must not only provide access to ICTs but also build skills that permit their effective use.”

While findings on individual impact were on one hand “disappointing,” the lessons for improvement were profound.  Beyond this, the study revealed, much to its researchers’ surprise, that the host organizations’ adoption of telecentres for their constituencies had its most transformative impacts on the host organizations themselves.

While initial internal use was primarily for e-mail access, preparing and scanning documents, and consulting and developing web sites, ACIN staff came to find that the telecenter prompted them in numerous ways to do a better job of fulfilling the organization’s mission. Staff received training in topics ranging from the use of ICTs to project proposal writing, and took advantage of opportunities to attend international workshops, complementing the new-found knowledge they were gaining from the Internet.  It improved their capabilities and resources in other activities, such as teaching, and enhanced the Association’s capacity to communicate and work with remote affiliates.

Under a system that ACIN staff call “chivanet,” the telecenter operators copy documents, such as e-mails and files from Web sites, onto diskettes and deliver these to the driver of a rugged rural bus called a chiva, which travels daily to the remote reserves. The driver delivers the diskettes to the radio operators, who then convey messages and incorporate information from the Web into their radio programming, thus keeping the communities that ACIN serves better informed about developments locally and elsewhere that are pertinent to them.

Another dramatic illustration of how ACIN staff put their new capacities to work emerged when the intensification of fighting between guerillas and paramilitaries in northern Cauca resulted in gross human rights abuses against the Paez people, including the assassination of indigenous leaders and massacres in remote Paez communities.

In response, the telecenter operators began sending digital images of missing persons to human rights organizations, in addition to using these to make printed notices for distribution by family members of the desaparecidos. With assistance from CIAT, ACIN also developed a media list and began sending communiqués about the human rights abuses to the press and human rights organizations.  Eventually, ACIN and other indigenous associations organized a massive human rights march, in which 35,000 people participated. On this occasion the telecenter proved vital in handling logistics as well as communication with the media and other organizations.

By heightening motivation and enhancing institutional capacity, the telecenter had “a profound effect on the internal working environment at ACIN.”   They’ve made ACIN “a pioneer in the use of ICTs in Colombia and an important source of lessons learned for other indigenous people’s associations.”

At CorpoTunía the telecenter’s primary impact in terms of the motivation of CorpoTunía staff has been to “broaden their field of action” in their work on agro-enterprise development, rural education, and other topics and provided an entirely new focal point for project development and helped the organization widen its development vision. Technical information from the web proved useful in their extension activities with farmers. CorpoTunía projects a stronger image to other organizations, through its well-organized web site as well as through its new projects and “is now viewed locally and within national organizations (including Colombia’s Ministry of Communications) as a pioneer and leader in the use of ICTs for rural development in Cauca. As with other telecenter experiences, strong leadership (that is, the presence of a telecenter ‘champion’) has proved to be a critical factor in this success.”

In establishing their telecentres and becoming leading technology users, developing markets and partnerships worldwide and escalating communication, program development, and organizational capacity growth, the host organizations have become international leaders in their arenas.

This study is also informative for the complex mix of political perspectives involved. Three of the four authors work at CIAT, the organization sponsoring the project that makes no secret of its ties to the World Bank and that its study rests upon a grant from, in addition to the Canadian International Development Research Centre (IDRC), the Rockefeller Foundation.  Whatever one makes of this, it is notable that the two NGOs that CIAT provided collaborative support for, CorpoTunía and ACIN (supporting 16 indigenous councils representing nearly 100,000 people, 65% indigenous, 30% mestizo, and 5% Afro-Colombian), are both radical grassroots organizing projects and the latter is especially outspoken in its criticism of U.S. foreign policy in Latin America, as found on its web site (in October 2009 and helpfully conveyed by Google translation facilities).

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Some discussion questions/issues for this case study:

  1. The Rural Columbia Telecenter study summary is only 2 pages, but it’s very compact and concentrated.  One of the things that makes it heavy and laden is all the acronyms and organizations.  Can we look over the piece and say what these and other special terms are?  Can we list them and organize them into those acronyms and names that are a general part of the field of community technology / Community Informatics and ones that seem particular to this specific case study?
  2. Let’s look at those that seem to be particular to the field in general:  What is an NGO / NPO? What is ICT? ICT4D?  What is a telecentre/telecentre?  What is special about the domain(s) for nonprofit, community technology:  .org and .coop.  What is special about working in these domains?  What is their relationship / role with .gov, .com, .edu?
  3. ACIN, CorpoTunía and CIAT – these are three of the acronyms / organizations that are particular to this specific study.  Are there others? (What about IDRC? What is a chivanet? What is a is desaparecido?) What do we learn about CorpoTunía in central Cauca ( and the Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca (, working with the collaborative support of the International Center for Tropical Agriculture? Why do they want to establish telecentres?  What’s the main assumption about the way they’re going about this?
  4. This is a story about a telecentre failure — but what are the things we learn about telecentres here, what they do, and how they can best be established?  It has been claimed that telecentres can be valuable for any NGO that has member / participant / client services. Do you believe this is true?  What services can usefully be enhanced or improved if its members develop technology literacy?  What ones can’t?
  5. This is also a story about a study.  What makes it unusual as a study?  What is the nature and meaning of the fact that what has been learned was totally unexpected?
  6. If the basic overall lesson here is that the experiments were failures in terms of establishing vital, widely used telecentres but nonetheless proved to be decisive in the host organizations themselves becoming active technology users, what were the advantages and positive acquisitions that ACIN and CorpoTunía realized in developing these capacities?
  7. What other questions / issues can be usefully pulled out of this particular study?
  8. What is a broader range of positive capacities to be realized by nonprofit, community NGOs through technology?  What are the questions and issues to be covered in exploring this more general field of community technology?  How does this lead into the next case study?

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