Far too many ICT4D initiative are thought up by the rich and privileged, often, but not always, with the intention of using technology to improve the lives of poor and marginalised peoples. More often than not, well-intentioned researchers and academics in Europe and north America, or those living in major urban centres of economically poorer countries, try to develop new “solutions” that will help to eliminate poverty or deliver on some aspect of the Sustainable Development Goals agreed by the global elite. Invariably, they have little understanding of the real needs of poor people or marginalised communities, and all too often such initiatives prove to be unsustainable once the initial funding for them has dissipated.
Some initiatives do, though, run counter to this all too familiar tale of woe. One of these is the work of the Institute of Social Informatics and Technological Innovations at the Universiti Malaysia Sarawak, which has over many years sought to work with local communities in some of the most isolated areas of Sarawak. This action research started almost 20 years ago with the creation of the e-Bario telecentre initiative in 1998. It was therefore a real privilege to be invited to give a keynote presentation at their 6th e-Borneo Knowledge Fair, held on the theme of community-based sustainability in Ba’Kelalan from 25-27 October (EBKF6). The first e-Bario Knowledge Fair was held in 2007, and a decade on the change of name indicates a broadening of its focus beyond the village of Bario to be more inclusive of other initiatives across Borneo.
The central belief underlying these knowledge fairs has been the importance of sharing understandings between communities and researchers in co-creating new knowledge. In a fundamental reversal of the normal conference format, where participants usually meet in major cities of the world, the e-Bario and now e-Borneo Knowledge Fairs have been held in isolated rural communities, with participating academics being encouraged to learn as much from those living there as the latter do from the conference and workshop speakers. To emphasise this difference, outside participants were encouraged this year to travel to Ba’Kelalan on a nine-hour journey along roads cut through the forests initially by logging companies.
The knowledge fair consisted mainly of a series of workshops that placed as much emphasis on the views of the inhabitants of Ba’Kelalan and other isolated communities in Malaysia as they did on the experiences and knowledge of outside academics. Great credit is due to the Co-Chairs of EBKF6, Narayanan Kulathu Ramaiyer and Roger Harris, and their team, for having brought together an amazing group of people. The pictures below hopefully capture something of the refreshing energy and excitement of these workshops (link here to the official video). Many things impressed me about them, not least the commitment of all involved to work together collaboratively to focus on delivering solutions to the needs and wants of people living in these very isolated communities, and ensuring that “development” does not irrevocably damage the essential elements of life that they wish to maintain. It was also very impressive to see three community healthworkers present, who were offering a free service of health checks (blood pressure and blood sugar levels) for those participating.
The most important feature of the Sixth e-Borneo Knowledge Fair for me was that it was all about working with isolated communities rather than for them. I came away I am sure very much more enriched by the experience than will other participants have been by my keynote! For those interested in what I had to say, though, the slides from my keynote are available here: Safeguarding the interests of the marginalised: rhetoric and reality of global ICT4D initiatives designed to deliver the SDGs.
Thanks again to everyone involved for making this such a special event!