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

Author: Nalaka Gunawardene

A science writer by training, I've worked as a journalist and communication specialist across Asia for 30+ years. During this time, I have variously been a news reporter, feature writer, radio presenter, TV quizmaster, documentary film producer, foreign correspondent and journalist trainer. I continue to juggle some of these roles, while also blogging and tweeting and column writing.

14 thoughts on “e-Asia 2009 in Colombo: Huge gaps remain between Sri Lanka’s ICT hype and reality”

  1. Its true that ICTA has always been into making hype through out the years.

    When we look back to the many ‘projects’ they have done in many government departments, mostly its a web sites, thats never updated after launch or some internal software system, which has failed to replace the existing systems.

    Their main focus has been all about quantity (except for the very few/rare systems that are useful). They just wanted to show that there are doing something…!

  2. e-asia in Lanka is a hype.
    Just to please the heads.

    There are no computers in court rooms, Police Stations etc etc
    Public are unable to get any court journal or a police report over the counter as they are not using any computer to manage the data. Unable to use local languages because of wrong registration in the ISO.

    First we have to use both mother tongues in Lanka. Local languages are not computer friendly, unable to read the data across all platforms, incorrect and incomplete.

    If I was given a slot at e asia I would have given all examples.
    I am addressing some of these issues in TV this sunday 6 dec at 6.30pm (dialog ch7 or

    Be not last to know

    Donald Gamnitillake
    Let us change the Standard

  3. This is one more attempt by you to tarnish and discredit the good work done by the Sinhala Buddhist government. You tried it earlier with Arthur Clark Institute, and now with the ICT agency. No institution is perfect. If you go looking for dirt you can always find some. You are an expert in this. Why not talk about the so many good things done by the hard working officers of the agency? Or is it that the likes of you cannot bear to see success by a nonUNP government?

  4. 21st Century Fox,
    Look who has popped up from the woodwork after a long hibernation! Frankly I’m tired of your oft-repeated tirade about ‘discrediting Sinhala Buddhist government’. According to you, one can only agree with the state or risk being branded as a traitor. If by chance you are voicing more than just an individual’s (marginal and extreme) opinion, we should begin to worry…

    The ICTA, like every other public sector agency, must be open to public and academic scrutiny and be accountable for meeting statutorily mandated goals and objectives. There cannot be sacred cows in the ICT world! Hype and rhetoric do not substitute tangible, independently verifiable accomplishments. (They only help cover up, for a while, the sad lack of proper accomplishments.) I’m the first to acknowledge that some sizzle/PR is needed in this day and age for a modern agency — but what happens when it’s all sizzle and no steak, as is the case with ICTA of Lanka?

    But hey, don’t take my word for anything. In a rigorously argued and well researched article published in The Sunday Times on 30 Nov 2009, Dr Rohan Samarajiva, head of LIRNEasia and former telecom regulator asked:
    “What did it (ICTA) achieve in its originally allotted five years? It would be useful to identify criteria that may be used by the citizens of Sri Lanka to assess success and hold it accountable for the next five years. Success criteria must be related not to money spent but to results achieved in ways that citizens and stakeholders can feel. The measures would, ideally, allow comparison with other countries.”

    Read the full article at http://www.sundaytimes.lk/091129/FinancialTimes/ft10.html

    SciDev.Net carried another perceptive analysis was written by Athar Osama, a senior executive at ANGLE Technology Group in the US and specialist in technology-based economic development.

    He wrote: “The real progress of ICT in development has been quite different from the hope and hype. There is much wishful thinking about the initiatives in India and elsewhere. In fact, there has been scant sharing of information or best practices across projects, and a negligible impact on the lives of ordinary people.

    “On top of this is the lack of a systematic and rigorous analysis of just how efficient the projects are. One exception is a study by the Indian Institutes of Information Technology in Bangalore. Its analysis of six prominent programmes in India disprove several of the myths of ICT for development.

    “The study shows, for example, that most projects have had little or no direct impact on poverty. Their ability to generate income has been limited, ranging from just over a dollar a day for Drishtee kiosk operators to slightly more than two dollars a day for e-Seva operators. The e-Choupals seem to be an exception, but have not yet been rigorously examined.”

    Full article at http://www.scidev.net/en/opinions/ict-for-development-hope-or-hype.html

    This shows how, all over the world, enlightened scholars and development practitioners are belatedly asking uncomfortable questions about ICTs’ value adding role in development. If it is sincere in purpose and wants to be taken seriously, Sri Lanka’s ICTA can’t be aloof of these discussions or specific scrutiny of its performance. Inarticulate defenders like ’21st Century Fox’ remind me of the story of the king who napped while his loyal monkey tried to protect him from flies and mosquitoes – using a razor blade…

  5. What comes to my mind when the word ICTA is mentioned is නටපු තොවිලෙකුත් නැති, බෙරේ පලුවකුත් නැති story. 5 years and millions of dollars could have done so much more than this. ICTA started a stylish campaign initially by showing it is a sophisticated modern establishment and it was beyond reach of the many. Later it became a kada mandiya what was open to everybody. Alas! the shift of paradigm didn’t do justice to the nation. Corrupt deals, granting projects to friends and kiths, tender frauds, occasional success stories that were overhyped were the outcome. But, to many ICTA means a sacred cow. ICTA should be questioned and taken to the task. Luckily for the ICTA, rather than bloggers and people like Rohan S and Nalaka G, mainstream media do not have the ICT literate investigative journalists to catch the ICTA pants down.

  6. Columbia,
    I presume by H.E. you mean the President of Sri Lanka. (When you use pseudonyms, you need to be more careful – only those around the President use this excessive honorific!)

    We are NOT talking about e-Sri Lanka here. We are talking about the ICT Agency of Sri Lanka, established in 2003 as a sunset agency with a five year time horizon which has already been surpassed. As far as we can tell from the hype, ICTA has outgrown e-Sri Lanka. So let’s have conceptual clarity if we want meaningful discussion.

    Many awards, we all know, go by favour so that’s not an independent verification of anything. As Rohan Samarajiva says, at least now let us agree on ‘criteria that may be used by the citizens of Sri Lanka to assess success and hold it (ICTA) accountable for the next five years’.

    Is this too much to ask of a public agency without it taking offence and calling us names?

  7. Warner Bros,
    There is a simple explanation for the near total absence of critical analysis of ICTA in Sri Lanka’s print and broadcast media: ICTA is a big time advertiser. It is spending a good part of its millions of dollars on paid advertising in newspapers and TV. The weeks preceding e-Asia 2009 have seen a surfeit of this spread across state owned and privately owned media. Which media organisation wants to get off this gravy train? Arguably the least corruptible media organisation left in Sri Lanka, the Ravaya Sinhala newspaper (owned by a journalists collective) also seems to have caved in under this advertising influence. I realise how hard it is for media to break even in these lean times, so am not entirely blaming the media for this state of affairs.

  8. These are the comments I had made in the year 2002 at South Asia Print Congress at BMICH
    Today is Dec 2009 and going to 2010
    What have we achieved in the past 8 years???
    Are we not still at 2002 level!!!

    Donald Gaminitillake
    Lets change the standard

  9. Nalaka,
    In your last comment, you say “…Ravaya Sinhala newspaper (owned by a journalists collective) also seems to have caved in under this advertising influence.” Not quite right. In their issue dated 06.12.2009, Ravaya carries a full page article by computer engineer Chanuka Wattegama that takes a hard look at e-government situation in Sri Lanka. It is not a propaganda piece for the ICTA.

  10. @Nulith T,
    You are quite right, so I stand corrected. And I am very glad to be wrong in a matter like this! As I read my good friend (and one time co-author in Digital Review of Asia chapters on Sri Lanka, http://www.digital-review.org/) Chanuka Wattegama’s article on e-gov in Sri Lanka in the last issue of Ravaya, it became clear that there is at least one media organisation left in Sri Lanka that cannot be silenced or bribed by ICTA’s many millions.

    It is all the more remarkable because 1) Ravaya has also printed paid advertisements for e-Asia 2009; and 2) one of its weekly columnists (on matters ICT!) is the incumbent head of communication at ICTA. As a journalist-owned media organisation, Ravaya needs advertising even more than those companies owned by media moguls with multiple business interests, so it is perfectly fine for Ravaya to accept ICTA advertising. Accommodating a partisan column by an ICTA staff member is also a matter of editorial discretion for the newspaper. It is to Ravaya’s credit, and a sign of its media pluralism, that they would accommodate evidence-based critiques of ICTA and e-gov in Sri Lanka at the same time.

    There is hope for us yet…and I publicly bow my head in salute to Ravaya (and Chanuka).

    PS: If Ravaya were to go online soon, Chanuka’s article (and other worthy content regularly appearing in the print edition) would become more widely accessible.

  11. The independent, authentic news source Lanka Business Online carried this story last week:

    Sri Lanka state ICT initiative funding not guaranteed: World Bank

    Dec 04, 2009 (LBO) – Sri Lanka will have to lobby to retain funding for its e-Sri Lanka initiative, as the World Bank draws up a lending program for Sri Lanka for the next three years, an official said.

    The World Bank currently supports the e-Sri Lanka project – an initiative to improve access and use of ICT (information communications technology) by citizens, businesses and government – with a 53 million dollar credit.

    “We have received a request for additional funding for the ICT Agency (ICTA) e-Sri Lanka initiative,” Naoko Ishii, country director for Sri Lanka said on Friday.

    “We are currently formulating the country assistance strategy for 2009-2012 and in that a second phase is not included.”

    Full story at: http://www.lankabusinessonline.com/fullstory.php?nid=1952023570#

    Let’s hope the World Bank would NOT throw more good money after bad money! Or our children will have to someday pay back even more than $53million worth of credit that the ICTA has gleefully squandered so far…

  12. I usually trust LBO as a credible news source, but am puzzled why they describe E-Sri Lanka as a World Bank credit of 53 million dollars. All this time I had heard that this amoint was a grant, that is money that need not be paid back one day. Can someone please confirm which one it is?

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