After only a few weeks working in the idp campss, I am already beginning to understand the complexities of development work. Whenever a service is provided or a material item is provided to people who are in very vulnerable situations, such as the internally displaced persons around Gulu, the implications of this give-take relationship can become enormous for the sustainability of any development project. Take, for example, our project with BOSCO. Right now we have installed low power computers, internet access and VOIP telephone service at seven sites in various IDP camps around Gulu. Yet it is not as easy as it sounds to just plop a computer with internet access wherever you please in these camps. First, there are technical things to consider and with the radio transmitters that allow the network to function, there are only certain places in these IDP camps which are accessible.
Secondly, one has to consider security issues. The computer has to be kept in a building which keeps it safe from the elements (this is not always easy to do in some of the camps which lack feasible structures for keeping such equipment) and safe from theft. This means that some of the computers must be kept in traditionally non-public spaces such as a teacher’s office or the residence of the local priests in the rectory of a church.
This brings us to the third issue. Who takes ownership of this material item that has been given? In this case a computer with access to the internet and cheap phone service has been installed; so does this belong to the person with whom it resides? Does it belong to the local school? Does it belong to the IDP camp as a whole (populations in the largest camps can be in the tens of thousands). One of the difficulties then is that when the material item has been given it often comes attached with privilege and power as far as who is allowed to access this new material item. Clearly, only so many people can have access to a computer at once so it is not feasible to say that anybody from and IDP camp with 30,000 residents is free to use the BOSCO computer at any time they choose. The question remains then, how can we best set up the expectations to realistically accommodate as many people as possible, facilitating as many users of the computers as possible, while also keeping in mind the restraints listed above.
One of the easiest solutions to this is simply to have more computers. Right now in some of the we have many people who are learning to use basic computer programs as well as discovering for the first time the communications and self-advocacy potential of the internet with email and VOIP. They are becoming capable users of this technology simply because they have access to it and can learn with very little guidance how to use it. In some camps, we even have users that are proficient enough that they have started trying to train other peers in the camps by setting up tutoring schedules.
Consequently, in a short period of time, I am already convinced that one of the key issues to expanding the abilities of those interested in becoming proficient in computers is simply access to a computer. These days, most of us each have our own personal computer at home. Some households have as many computers as people. And how are we (most of us!) able to stay ahead of the curve in our use of a computer to complete our daily tasks: again, simply because of the ease with which we have access. With more computers—even only a handful—at each of the existing sites, we could greatly improve the abilities of the Acholi people to learn to become proficient users and, in time, they can be trained to use the internet to advocate for their own cause.
For example, BOSCO has set up a wikispace page which allows internet users in the camps to collaborate with each other and with those in far off lands such as the U.S. Using this wikispace, the users in the camps have been able to post their own proposals for various causes. The site works like an easy-to-use webpage allowing people in the camps to edit and post their own material. In the Pagak IDP camp, farmers have started to post farming proposals on the BOSCO wikispace. This is a great tool for these farmers to start advocating for their own cause as they resume farming again after being cut off from their main source of income during the war (people living in the idp camps didn’t have access to their land when the conflict was at its peak).
For those interested in viewing one of these proposals, you can visit http://bosco-uganda.wikispaces.com/Pagak . Christopher who currently lives in Pagak camp, has organized a youth farming movement and has posted his farming proposals on the BOSCO wikispace. If you navigate to this site, simply click on the “Organic Farming” link and it will take you to his proposal page. Once users such as Christopher are proficient enough to use the computer and the internet in these kind of ways, the next challenge is trying to get their proposals read by the appropriate organizations who could help fund such proposals. Nonetheless, I think these proposals demonstrate the value of having access to computers and the internet in a post-conflict landscape. I hope that it will continue to be shown that providing people with resources that allow them to advocate for themselves will be a sustainable model of development for BOSCO!