17 November 2000

Top Story

Over the last two years there has been a growth in organisations specialising in providing IT expertise by sending volunteers, most notably the Geek Corps and Canada’s NetCorps. Programmes of this kind always raise uneasy issues about who takes most away from the exchange. NetCorps’ Sunita Dixit describes how the organisation has made a contribution to the development of an "IT culture" in Africa.


In two years, nine Canadian volunteer-sending NGOs have delivered a Canadian Government-funded NetCorps program by sponsoring young Canadians to fill four-to six-month IT assignments in developing countries. The program was conceived as a unique learning opportunity for young Canadians in need of IT work experience as well as for organisations in developing countries working to enhance their IT capacities.


Since August 1999, 108 internships have taken place in 22 African countries and an additional 76 internships are ongoing in various sectors and functions ranging from web design and training for the SANGOCO - South African National NGO Coalition to database administration for Nigeria's Constitutional Rights Project.


Pre-departure preparation is an intrinsic part of the program, focusing on attitudes and behaviour conducive to successful collaboration in an unfamiliar cultural setting, and more specifically on technology transfer skills and adult education in general, since most assignments involve training and skill enhancement.


In a fast moving field like IT, it may seem surprising that in many cases, "slowly but surely" seems the way to go.This, however, has been the approach adopted by NetCorps. Although the program’s IT orientation may suggest the contrary, the investment is in human capacity.In most cases the host organizations have little or no IT infrastructure to begin with, and therefore no IT "culture". Some of the successes that the programme is able to report are rather modest steps towards institutional reinforcement. IT is a means to an end, while the goal is human development.


Mutoko High School in Mutoko, Zimbabwe is one clear example of how NetCorps has been able to contribute to local human development.The school had received a donation of several computers which their NetCorps intern, sent by WUSC (a Canadian NGO), was able to network and hook up to the Internet. He is currently training teachers in using the internet and in troubleshooting for the inevitable technical problems that arise. Mutoko High School has a partnership with a "twin" high school in British Colombia, Canada that provided the initial motivation for the work. Students in the two high schools can now exchange questions and information freely through e-mail.


Although there are a few exceptions, most of NetCorps’ host organisations in Africa have a limited IT infrastructure and they lack an IT culture.This helps explain why some internships focus on the basics, such as anti-virus procedures and policies (an integral part of the interns’ pre-departure preparation) or training in software applications and use of the Internet.


In several African internships including Burkina Faso’s Réseau Afrique Jeunesse and La Ligue des Consommateurs du Burkina, organizations were able to couple a donation of computer equipment with the presence of a NetCorps intern who trained staff.Because of the large focus on training, materials such as those developed by the ITrain Collective (http://mail.bellanet.org/itrain/) are also a vital part of the resources made available to interns.


Although NetCorps has been in operation for only a year and a half, some changes are already occuring.First, the technical requirement of internships tends to increase, either as a reflection of a better understanding of IT’s contribution to an NGO’s work or as a reflection of an NGO getting past "the basics".Second, NetCorps interns are now training not only the staff of their host organisations but also a wider public, including young people being reached through schools or youth groups, such as the youth drop-in centres (Maison de Jeunes) in Tunisia. It appears that an "IT culture" is gaining momentum among young people and NGO’s in Africa, although the pace varies from country to country.


For further information on NetCorps, see its website at http://www.netcorps-cyberjeunes.org