Wednesday, 26 December 2007

Interview with Mr. Mahabir Pun, Chairman of E-network Research and

Mahabir Pun, 52, a Nepali citizen, is this year’s 2007 Magsaysay awardee for community leadership for his innovative application of wireless computer technology to connect his remote native village, Nangi, in Nepal, to the global village. The Magsaysay Award, the Asian equivalent of the Nobel prize, is given every year to Asians achieving distinction in the fi elds of government service; public service; community leadership; journalism, literature and creative communication arts; peace and international understanding; and emergent leadership. Returning to his native Nangi village after receiving his Master’s degree in Education at the University of Nebraska in Kearney, Pun founded the Himanchal Education Foundation. Associating with several organisations working on ICT for rural development, he worked to establish wireless networks in rural Nepal, for which he gained the Magsaysay award of distinction. In this interview we discuss his ongoing projects and the potentials and possibilities of ICT for rural development in the Nepal Himalayas.

Q. How do you feel after winning the Ramon Magsaysay Award for your contribution to rural community development?
A. I have never worked for awards. However, I am very happy to have been awarded (this distinction) and have realised that I have made Nepalese media and other people happier than me, highlighting the importance of my work and the award.

Q. Tell us about your ongoing projects. What are your future plans regarding wireless technology in Nepal?
A. There are many projects in progress. We are expanding our services upon request from communities, the government, and other agencies. Nowwe are connecting the Internet to some villages in Makanwanpur district and planning to provide tele-medicine and tele-education services. Rato Bangla School planned to conduct training for teachers and tele-education to schools in the rural areas of Makanwanpur. We are also working with the Kathmandu Model Hospital to expand tele-medicine services to Dolkha district. Upon request from Winrock International, we are currently linking the rural southern villages of Palpa district to the Internet. We are also expanding our earlier work in Myagdi to more villages, which will be provided with tele-education and telemedicine services. We are also connecting the service to four districts between Kathmandu and Pokhara. Apart from this, we are working with Madan Puruskar Pustakalaya (a library and not-for-profi t institution that is the principal archive of books and periodicals in the Nepali language), to introduce Nepali Windows and Nepalinux, and developing and organising (curriculum) content through the Open Learning Exchange (OLE). (OLE is a worldwide network of 100+ local grassroots organisations [OLE centres] committed to providing universal basic education in their respective nations). Course content in mathematics is being developed for grades 6 and 8 in consultation with the Ministry of Education. We are also working with the Kathmandu Engineering College to develop video-conferencing applications and with Gandaki Engineering College on some other applications.
Q. What are some of the major challenges you encountered implementing your projects?
A. When you go to many rural villages, you will see that there are very fewtrained and qualified teachers. Many schools lack teachers. It is a big challenge to use ICT to promote education in those areas. My interest is to expand the Internet as a means of promoting education. Internet expansion itself has no meaning unless we enable people to use the services that can be made available. When they don’t understand English they can’t make good use of the Internet and it simply becomes a showpiece. We have faced a few technical problems in tele-medicine and tele-education and our technical team is responsible for fixing (these) problems. Currently, we have only four paid staff, the rest are all working on a volunteer basis. Financial capability is another challenge to (be able to) upscale and expand services. Since we have a poor literacy rate in mountainous and hilly areas, development of capacity to use ICT services among rural communities is another challenge which cannot be solved overnight. It is a gradual process and needs to be integrated with the country’s overall educational system. Lack of coordination among similar organisations is another problem.
Q. Do you see the possibility of replicating or upscaling your work in Nepal to other remote mountainous regions of Asia and the Pacific?
A. Yes. However, our current activities are in Nepal only. We are doing (our) homework to start a relatively big project in three remote districts in far western Nepal with support from the National Planning Commission, most probably in Bajhang, Bajura, and Jumla. Projects in Makanwanpur, Dolkha, and others are a few of the examples of replication and upscaling. As we move from hilly areas to the plains we may have some problems with off-line sites. In the plains, we cannot see farther like in hilly areas, and we have to spend more resources in setting up in off-line sites, but in the hilly areas we can easily see peaks from far away and that makes the wireless system easier to connect and also cheaper, as we do not need to invest much in setting up towers. Recently, teams of television programmes arrived from India who are willing to develop video clips of our work in Nepal and planning to broadcast these in India. We are receiving similar requests from media (in other countries).
Q. What are some of the challenges faced by the mountain community of Nangi, and how has wireless technology helped to address them?
A. The case of Nangi is not much different from other parts of Nepal. I do not know the situation in the far-western hilly districts, where people are facing problems of famine most of the time. In general, most of the mountainous communities have traditional agricultural systems and somehow are able to produce minimum grains to eat and are able to sustain subsistence livelihoods. Not only in mountains but also in other parts of Nepal, the major problem is people do not have jobs or other alternatives for cash income, for which reason they migrate seasonally (and in some cases for many years) to neighbouring countries. It has become an unavoidable option, as people do not have the opportunity to generate income to cover the expenses of basic necessities such as salt and oil. Similarly in the villages, they do not have hospitals, schools, and communication facilities, which add pressure on the overall development of the region. However, these problems are not limited to Nepal or Nepalese mountainous areas. The contribution of technology in improving livelihoods of rural people is not as easy to measure as it seems. In relatively developed areas, or areas which are closer to markets, technology can make the people aware about market-related information on a variety of products so they can sell their products at best price. Take the case of herbs and other high-value, low-volume products that are common in our mountain regions. Presently, the collectors – the local people – are selling their products at very cheap prices to contractors who are mainly from cities, or at least they do not come from these areas and they resell the products for better prices. It’s because the local communities are not aware of the market system and the further processes after they sell the products to the contractors. If we manage to develop a system to inform them about their products and their markets, and market rates, and so on, through application of ICT tools, local communities will benefit more than they are benefiting now, and we can see a remarkable improvement in income generation in local communities. But this is not equally benefi cial for all products and areas. Application of ICT should be supported side by side by roads and other means of transport to markets for the rural goods to be marketed most effectively. For example, Jumla and Humla grow good quality apples and the people are aware of their market value. However, they are still not able to sell their products because of the large investment required, lack of transportation facilities, among others.
Q. How do you see the role of ICT in the transformation of rural communities in next fi ve years?
A. Five years is a long time when talking about technology and its advancement. In the next five years technology will be cheaper and will be easily available to the poor. Today’s sophisticated technology will be common and more improved technologies will be available for our use and that can be used for and by rural communities. When the cost of ICT falls and affordability by local people increases, it will be easier to expand services, and the poorest of the poor can also have access to technology and benefit from it. However, ICT is not magic in itself and cannot transform rural communities drastically. ICT should be promoted side by side with other literacy-related programmes and income generating activities, after which some remarkable changes will occur. One tragedy in our country is (that) many short-term projects are working in the areas of ICT and they do a pilot project in some area and (then) they disappear in a couple of years, and as a result neither do the communities benefit, nor is the technology tested in a more exhaustive way. In such cases, no transformation can be expected (to take place). But in reports they claim big achievements. This should be discouraged for better implementation of ICT projects.


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