Community-Based Computer Literacy

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Peter Sy
University of the Philippines

In developing countries, governments promote computer literacy primarily to address systemic requirements like skilled workers for various economic sectors and improved labor productivity in both government and private institutions. This skewed development, which fails to address the digital divide in a meaningful way, tends to perpetuate the very gap governments allegedly seek to bridge. It also creates unhealthy dependence of developing countries on suppliers of information infrastructures.


While the digital divide has indubitably emerged as a serious form of social inequality in many societies and there have been varied and creative responses to it, in the developing countries, responses from governments have been generally tied to meeting structural imperatives. Resources both from local and foreign donors and creditors have been massively directed at acquiring computers and IT infrastructures as well as at promoting computer literacy at various levels of education both formal and informal. This development comes as a kind of catch-up effort on the part of developing countries; otherwise, they are presumably doomed to the vicious cycle of poverty and under-development. For instance, the UNESCO once estimated that for the Philippines to be globally competitive, at least 65% of its citizens must be computer-literate.


Such an otherwise well-meaning injunction on a developing country may, however, do more harm than good if it does not come with culturally and socially-sensitive measures. By far, computer literacy in developing countries is often associated with government target quotas in producing or retooling workers for various economic sectors, improved productivity in manufacturing sub-assemblies and labor sub-contracting. While these can be legitimate goals of governments, projects in computer literacy also need to mitigate the social imports that the whole "computer culture" brings: labor and market efficiency, means-end connectivity, mass productivity--values and assumptions that are not necessarily shared in project sites. It doesn't come surprising, indeed, that computer literacy has remained an alien and alienating experience for masses of people in developing countries. Largely the resulting experience has so far been dependence on suppliers of computers and IT infrastructures. Software and hardware dominance comes from developed countries whose leaders only recently pledged to help poorer nations (a charming thought indeed if only it doesn't perpetuate the cycle of dependence the actions of these rich countries have so far created). Contents flowing on Internet infrastructures continue to be dominated by media conglomerates that tend portray computers and technologies in overly-glorified ways, thus, increasing frustration when such technology "come down" to developing countries.


For computer-literacy programs to be meaningfully successful, they need to be aligned with the goals of communities in developing countries (which of course need not exclude some of the systemic goals set by their governments). So far there have best practices in this respect. Depending upon diverse contexts, these practices may have features including (but not limited to):

1. more emphasis on computer-literacy as communication-enhancing skill, enabling people to reach more people and hear from more people outside the immediate limits of the community where they belong; initially less on computers as tools of productivity;

2. more emphasis on computer-literacy as a process (which can be a very long one) of learning new things with machines; less emphasis on computers as number-crunching, word-processing, media-spinning machines;

3. more emphasis on what people in the community can do together with machines to find (and act on) better ways of sustaining individuals, families, and groups (not necessarily in terms of jobs which are of course also important); less on technical competencies that make one "computer literate";

4. more emphasis on creative ways of sustaining existing communicative practices of individuals, families, and communities; less on fancy "high tech" media delivery which is, more often than not, unaffordable to most people in developing countries.

Nonetheless, as far as "solutions" go in real life, they cannot be static or permanent. A "community-based" computer literacy program, if true to its name, shouldn't be deciding what people must do to make themselves literate. It's going to be their choice, to begin with.

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