Call 1919 from a telephone anywhere in Sri Lanka and you can access information from 77 Government organizations in any of the country’s three main languages - Sinhala, Tamil or English. Meanwhile, Sri Lanka’s over 100,000 hearing and vision impaired, stand to benefit from an Impaired Aid Project that has introduced “Digital talking Books” using a new suite of local language accessibility applications.
“1919,” the online Government Information Centre, and the Impaired Aid project won awards at the 2009 World Summit Awards (WSA), a global initiative for selecting and promoting the world’s best e-contents and applications. Both projects are part of e-Sri Lanka, one of the first World Bank projects designed to bring Information Communication Technology (ICT) to every village, citizen, and business, and transform the way the government thinks and works.
The vision expressed at the launch of the project in 2004 was that “e-Sri Lanka aspires to the ideal of making Sri Lanka the most connected government to its people, and raising the quality of life of all its citizens with access to better public services, learning opportunities, and information.” Sri Lanka is now on course to realising this vision.
The E- Sri Lanka Development Project was developed collaboratively between the World Bank South Asia Region’s Finance and Private Sector Development Unit and the Global ICT Unit. It pioneered integrating a comprehensive ICT vision and planning into the development process.
“Initially, we felt unprepared to take on the challenges and risks of the new e-Development paradigm,” says Simon Bell, Sector Manager for Finance and Private Sector. “But this project has demonstrated that ICT can have an enormous impact in terms of improving government services, creating jobs, and enhancing skills of young people, especially in rural areas.”
The project has created a vast eco system of ICT-based resources in the rural sector, resulting in the ICT literacy rate increasing from 9.7 percent in 2004 to 22 percent in 2008.
“The programme is now having a high impact. Sri Lanka is ahead of the learning curve with this pioneering programme. Many countries are watching and want to learn from it.” says Philippe Dongier, Sector Manager for the ICT Sector.
The project’s main goal is to bring the benefits of the global knowledge economy to both urban centres and rural areas of Sri Lanka. This was to be achieved through a series of programmes that included strategic policy and regulatory reforms, expansion of the broadband network throughout the country, providing government services online, establishing nenasalas (telecentres) in remote areas. It also aims to enhance the competitiveness of the country’s ICT private sector and opening up opportunities for investment in outsourced IT-Enabled services, and implementing several rural ICT initiatives through grants.
The Information Communication Technology Agency (ICTA), was established by the Government to define, catalyze, and lead implementation of the country’s ICT policy. ICTA has a very effective institutional model that draws on Singapore’s and Korea’s unique e-Development experience. It has been granted independence to implement a multi-pronged program of activities that it calls – “Actioning ideas.”
E-Society and reaching the rural poor through Tele/Knowledge Centres
One of the ideas actioned was to create an e-society where communities of farmers, students and small entrepreneurs are linked to information, learning and trading facilities. The actioning was via tele/knowledge centres called Nenaselas (Nena=knowledge+ selas=shops), that spawned across the country bringing within easy reach computer technology, the Internet, and IT skills training to many people who had never even seen a computer.
For example, in a remote village in the Southeast, Janaka Srimal founded the Lak Aruna Nenasala seven years ago. With only one computer, he started teaching basic computer skills to the village children. Today the Nenasala has more than 100 members.
“In addition to running our two websites, I keep telling the children here to improve their English through the use of internet,” says Srimal. “They are logged on to their Skype and Google accounts. These children have lots of friends all over the world with whom they chat to improve their English.”
The Nenasalas are also the base for citizen access to:
*Local radio broadcasts of market prices and crop/agricultural information to farmers,
*E-health/telemedicine facilities to rural patients,
*Availability of digital “talking books” (audio books) for the visually impaired and
*Visual hearing aids for the hearing impaired.
“Private entrepreneurs, community groups, and even religious establishments of all denominations established Nenasalas using project funds,” says Reshan Dewapura, Chief Operating Officer of ICTA.” “These Nenasalas, totaling 587 spread across the country, have served as rural outposts for internet cafés, computer literacy centres, and bases for rural outsourcing businesses that create jobs in rural areas”
The momentum and pace for creating an e-society did not leave behind the disabled. The most disadvantaged sections of Sri Lankan society has benefitted from the most advanced ICT technologies.
Visually impaired Biso Menike Grero graduated 31 years ago and is now employed as a Braille transcriber. Recalling the difficulties she encountered throughout her school and university days she is fully appreciative of the new technology. “The visually disabled can now make a success of their lives, study about many new subjects and topics as a result of this new technology.”
The e-society Development initiative also provides grants of $5,000 for specific projects from communities or organisations with relevant experience in a Community Assistance Programme. These grants cover many areas including indigenous content, educational content, ICT-based competitions to promote ICT literacy and support for setting up income generating websites. Some of the Highlights include:
*Obtaining satellite information on fish movements over the Internet and sending longitudinal and latitude co-ordinates via sms to fishermen;
*Training for SMEs (Small and Medium Enterprises) open source accounting packages;
*Creating digital content related to indigenous medicine;
*English language learning via Satellite;
*Documenting violence against women using ICT.
E-Government -- Bringing
government services closer to the people
From birth to death, and practically everything in between, sums up all the services available through a clear A-Z index at the online Government Information Centre. For example, it shows the steps needed to get the birth of a child registered, even if the birth happened in a remote village in Sri Lanka.
The e-Government programme is aimed at making access to government services much more efficient through streamlined ICT-enabled processes. When the Indian Ocean tsunami hit Sri Lanka in 2004, hundreds of thousands of lives and homes were washed away along with their birth, marriage, death certificates and identity cards. Rebuilding lives necessitated speedy access to getting replacement for the valuable documents lost.
ICTA responded by developing low-cost applications in several provisional administrative offices that allowed survivors to easily search a central digitized data repository to retrieve birth certificates within 10-30 minutes without having to travel to the capital Colombo. E-Government software applications now include e-population (for birth, marriage and death registrations), e-foreign employment bureau (a data base for jobs postings, immigration and emigration), e-pensions etc.
E-Knowledge and job creation
Other elements of the project are e-Knowledge and ICT for private sector development and Jobs. E-Knowledge focuses on building the country’s human capacity in ICT. Specialised training modules on network administration, advanced technical skills and IT management are now incorporated into university curricula, certification programmes, distance learning, and MBA programmes.
In terms of job creation, over 45,000 new jobs have been created in Sri Lanka’s Information Technology (IT) and Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) sector since 2005. IT Enabled Service exports have already become the 5th largest foreign exchange earner in the country with US$250 million in 2008. By 2015, it is expected that the IT/BPO industry will be the country’s number one export revenue earner with exports of $2 billion and 103,025 jobs.
Sri Lanka is also being recognised as an emerging centre of excellence for Financial and Accounting Outsourcing. Today Colombo ranks 5th in the world in this area of expertise, and, most recently, AT Kearney (2009) reported that Sri Lanka moved 13 points on the off-shoring index, the biggest improvement amongst 50 countries.
In a recent message to celebrate the launch of a joint rural development initiative with Microsoft, Bill Gates commended the Government’s ICT strategy.
The future of ICT in Sri Lanka’s development
Over the years, e-Sri Lanka has endured and overcome many implementation challenges and has been both resilient and responsive to the demands of multiple stake-holders in a challenging implementation environment. By successfully adapting to changes to implement e-Sri Lanka in what can be called a turbulent environment, ICTA is demonstrating a replicable true multi-stakeholder model,
Going forward, the project is expected to focus on inclusive growth by taking the dividends of ICT to northern and eastern areas of the country. “We need broadband Internet services that will enable us to lead on new developments and research in the medical field,” said Ramanathan Archchuna, an undergraduate medical student at the University of Jaffna, located in the conflict-affected Northern part of the country.
The focus will be on replicating ICT successes in those areas and deploying several quick-win low cost e-Government solutions to improve efficiency of service delivery in previously conflict affected areas. The follow-up efforts are likely to focus on the areas of devolution, governance, and innovation for inclusive growth.
Ideas are thus being actioned, local and global Knowledge harnessed, dividends distributed to citizens, services being re-engineered. Post conflict Sri Lanka is well poised on the electronic bridge to make the leap that will take it to a middle income country in peace.
“ICT can impact lives provided there is a big enough vision behind it and genuine intentions to realize that vision” - http://icta.lk/
Thyra Riley and Chulie de Silva wrote this article with input from the current Task Team Leaders, Tatiana Nenova and Sandra Sargent, Manju Haththotuwa, (Founding Managing Director of ICTA, now Senior ICT Policy Specialist, World Bank), Nagy Hanna ( Sr. Consultant and Author on e-Development strategies), Ismail Radwan, (Senior PSD Specialist), Asya Alhaque (Senior PSD Specialist), Simon Bell, Sector Manager, Finance and Private Sector Development, and Philippe Dongier, Sector Manager, Policy Division, Global ICT.
By Thyra Riley and Chulie de Silva