e-Asia 2009 in Colombo: Huge gaps remain between Sri Lanka’s ICT hype and reality

Say eeeeeeeeeee - and don't ask questions!
The much-hyped e-Asia 2009 conference and exhibition opens in Colombo, Sri Lanka, today. It is organised by our good friends at the Centre for Science, Development and Media Studies (CSDMS) in India and the Sri Lankan government agency known as Information and Communication Technology Agency (ICTA).

According to the conference website, e-Asia 2009 is meant also to celebrate Sri Lanka’s Year of ICT and English, 2009. The event has been preceded by a massive advertising blitz in Sri Lanka’s print and broadcast media, while Colombo and suburbs have been plastered with promotional banners and posters.

The foreign delegates will be exposed to a great deal of sunshine stories from the ICTA which was originally set up as a sunset agency (but hey, the sun never sets on some people!). Sri Lankan delegates will be too embarrassed or well mannered to point out glaring gaps between the hype and reality. Few people want to rock the boat these days!

I am reminded of a popular Sri Lankan folk tale. It relates an incident that happened when we were ruled by hereditary kings, and concerns jaggery — a delicious sugar substitute we make from the sap of the coconut palm.

The King of Lanka, being the curious type, wanted to know how jaggery was made. He sent for the official jaggery supplier to the Palace, who claimed that it was being produced under the most hygienic conditions by people who had mastered the technique for decades.

Unlike today’s rulers, however, the kings of yore didn’t believe everything they were told. So one day the King went in disguise to investigate. Which was just as well — because the reality was completely different! The king found his jaggery being made in a rickety old shack, with none of the hygienic conditions!

A very angry king revealed who he was, and demanded an explanation. He was then told: “That’s the hype, Your Majesty, and this is the reality!”

For one thing, today’s heads of state – overexposed in the media – can hardly expect to go anywhere incognito (and if they tried, security officers and assorted sycophants would immediately prevent it!). All the same, it is an interesting thought experiment to wonder what the President of Sri Lanka might uncover if he were to probe beyond the glitzy (almost giddy) propaganda being unleashed by ICTA!

As I wrote in CSDMS’s own regional magazine i4d a couple of years ago, the gulf between the hype and reality in our ICT circles can be as wide as it is shocking. When an agency invests so much time, effort and money in publicity, we can always suspect that there is more than what meets the eye…

People want their needs met and problems solved, not fancy projects...

The proof of the ICT pudding is in the societal acceptance and integration of ICT tools, processes and services in the daily living, work and leisure of people. As I said in my i4d essay: “Tragically, the ICT Agency of Sri Lanka, which has the mandate and powers to address these issues, is instead dissipating its energy and resources on setting up rural tele-centres, a task that it should leave to better positioned and experienced groups. This glaring inability to set and pursue the right priorities has been a bane of Sri Lankan ICT sector for years.”

What I wrote a couple of years ago is still valid. Here’s another excerpt:

No amount of legislation, policy formulation and paid propaganda by the ICTA is going to mainstream ICTs in Sri Lankan society. ICTs have to prove their worth, and be accepted as adding value to living and working conditions of ordinary people.

We can assess the utility and relevance of any new technology by asking a few simple questions. Does the new technology or process:
– put more food on their table?
– add More money in people’s pockets?
– make interfacing with govt easier?
– save time and effort involved in commuting?
– support cultural and personal needs of individuals and groups?
– put a smile on users’ faces?

Finally, is it affordable, user-friendly and widely available, with minimum entry level barriers?

Read my full essay, ICT Hype and Realities in i4d magazine