by Brian Kelly
When the Telecenter was put into operation in 2004 in Suruacá, nearly 500 miles up the Amazon Basin, the residents thought the addition of computers to their community was a great idea, but they weren't sure what benefits they would bring. The young people thought they were toys to play games on and the adults didn't understand the power of e-mail or what role the addition of a computer would provide them. Three organizations, including our Executive Director Bob Bortner's Acumen International, had worked with USAID to install Suruacá's Telecenter with its small solar powered generator. As the project finished, Bob formed Community Empowerment Network to provide continuing assistance to communities like Suruacá.
CEN immediately noticed a missing link: community members needed help learning how to use their new Telecenter to realize the benefits. CEN began educating key people on the opportunities presented by the technology. At first it required some hand holding to get people to obtaining e-mail accounts, and a lot of encouragement to get individuals to start accessing and sharing vitally important information on health issues, news, and education.
Today people in Suruacá are asking CEN for new software applications and training on how to use them and the information these applications provide. A complete reversal in a short couple of years!
A situation like this is perfect for CEN. We have learned how to provide assistance in a way that encourages the community to create their own goals and figure out how to accomplish them largely on their own. CEN will replicate this experience in many other communities. We have also helped Suruacá and other neighboring communities to link up through their computers to learn from each other and share the benefits the technology brings them. It is so encouraging to see the Telecenters being used by the communities in creative ways to solve their own challenges as the people there learn what works for them. A number of the residents are realizing that "information is power" in helping them to develop.
For people who have lived an isolated lifestyle in a remote area, access to information from outside their community in the form and abundance available over the Internet is not an easy thing to understand and assimilate. One of CEN's objectives is to help these individuals develop a process of putting this information to good uses in their community without adversely impacting their way of life. This is a delicate role CEN plays, but with our growing experience, we feel that it is an important one that we can deliver to many communities similar to Suruacá.