Access to information in Africa is a fundamental obstacle to development. Africa’s youth population is increasing faster than any other region of the world. But while the young (15-24 years old) make up 20% of the continent’s population, they account for 60% of the unemployed. As these rising numbers flock to cities, the old ways of passing on information – through small-scale, oral community learning – have become obsolete. New methods of youth engagement, skill development and employment are needed.
by Tewodros Alemayehu
Discovering these methods is the ambition of the “International Research and Exchanges Board” (IREX). Founded in 1968, IREX is a non-profit organisation dedicated to the innovative uses of technologies to “promote positive lasting change globally”. It has an annual portfolio of over $70 million and a worldwide staff of over 400, with partners in more than 100 countries. They recognise the difficulties to development faced across Africa that arise not just from high youth unemployment, but also the unequal distribution of resources (particularly between rural and urban areas), low enrolment in education, and barriers to health resources.
IREX sees the essential role of “information services” in national development plans – since educating citizens will give them the tools and resources to reduce these inequalities, while furthering economic empowerment.
Much has been made of the emerging role of online education technologies in this urbanised landscape – but public libraries have often been left out of the conversation. IREX believes they should be seen as a prominent asset in the advancement of eLearning and youth engagement. Public libraries provide “health information, workforce development, access to agricultural resources, and education opportunities, often tapping technologies to enrich the process.”
With this understanding, IREX conceived of the “Beyond Access Project.”
Beyond Access is a worldwide movement of people and organisations whose core belief is that “libraries drive development”. They provide a platform for an online community to share knowledge of their practices, while providing funding, travel, and training opportunities. At the same time, they help libraries develop partnerships and manage projects – with the aim of achieving social and economic improvement in local communities.
Working with governments and aid organisations, Beyond Access hopes to identify ways that libraries can contribute to local development goals, while advancing national digital inclusion. In partnership with “Friends of Beyond Access”, the project provides funding to help achieve these goals, and documents the methods developed so that other communities can replicate their successes.
There are over 6,000 public libraries in Africa. “Quietly,” IREX acknowledges, “public libraries in Africa, and especially Uganda, have been developing new services relevant for a rapidly expanding information society”. Beyond Access has overseen many of these developments – and IREX wishes to take some of them to the 2014 eLearning Africa conference in Uganda.
For instance, Hellen Muyomba will discuss schemes developed by the National Library of Uganda. Established in 2003, the library serves as far more than just a depositary of books. One programme, supported by the Electronic Information for Libraries (EIFL) non-profit organisation, trains young people in basic computer literacy. This directly helps local community members by enhancing their skills, employability, and access to information about job opportunities. NLU is also developing a programme to “help pregnant teenagers learn to use technology to access information that will help them improve their health and livelihoods”.
The Kitengesa Community Library runs numerous similar programmes. It began in April 1999 with a box of books, 13 students, and the enthusiasm of two founders – Emmanuel Mawanda and Dr. Kate Parry. It has now grown to serve a community of over 700 people. In partnership with The AIDS Support Organisation, it provides HIV/AIDS counselling and testing services to library members. Also, with support from EIFL, the Busia District Local Government, and the Uganda Community Libraries Association it “trains students at a nearby school for the deaf on how to use Skype to communicate with others around the world.” Such inter-organisational co-operation is exemplary of the kind of networked support that Beyond Access wishes to promote and nurture.
Along with Ugandan examples, IREX will showcase the programmes of libraries from across the continent. The Ghana Library Authority in Tamale, for example, has won two EIFL-PLIP grants for initiatives that integrate technology, public health, and library services. Its “Technology for Maternal Health” programme uses “the internet, mobile phones, and radio to build networks between pregnant women and health workers and to help reduce maternal mortality in the Northern Region of Ghana”. In addition, the library has collaborated with multimedia groups to support the ICT training for youth programme, “4kidz.”
These projects – centred on local libraries, in collaboration with an international network of funds and knowledge – are the beginning of a response to the difficulties facing Uganda’s, and Africa’s development in the hyper-urbanised internet age. IREX is optimistic about the role technology can play in enhancing the exchange of public information. But as programmes such as Beyond Access recognise, the challenges faced can be more easily overcome by local communities working together internationally.
“Freedom of Information: How Public Is Public Access?” is the title of IREX’ session at eLearning Africa 2014, to take place on Thursday 29 May at 11:45. Visit the programme page to find out more!