Digital Empowerment Foundation’s journey of 19 years, since 2002, has shown how they have taken a community driven approach in all of their policies. All along, they also advised several wings of the government to formulate community oriented policies and programmes. A democracy is for the people, by the people and of the people. Keeping this in mind DEF has understood the needs of the people and taken the voice of the people to diverse stakeholders to prioritise the needs of the community with complementing digital designs.
A group of five faculty members from different government and academic institutions teaching Communication for Development and Social change, did a case study on use of Communication for Social Change by Digital Empowerment Foundation. The findings were then presented in a Faculty Development Workshop organised by C4SC Institute of Eminence, University of Hyderabad. Osama Manzar, founder-director of DEF discussed the foundation’s work, communication strategies and its reach in the interview. The five faculty members were Dr. Kaifia Ancer Laskar, Umang Chauhan, Dr. Richa Yadav, Dr. Sanjeev S.R., and Dr. Sangeetha P.V.
Where does DEF fit in the broad category of Communication for Social Change (C4SC) in regards to — capacity building, given context, and facilitation of voices?
To begin with, the question can be answered in 5 segments to produce a thorough understanding. First, Communication for Social Change (C4SC) needs to be defined for the sake of the discussion; second, DEF’s perspective of C4SC with the addition of its digital standpoint; third, discussing the result of research design being transformed into action; fourth, learnings that have concluded to advocacy, policy or another form of scalable implementation; fifth and the final one — focus on design framework that has not only led to adoption but also been eliminated with the reasons for its elimination, and while sharing their potential of replication.
The word communication is often perceived as an exchange of dialogue between one and more individuals or even one and more locations. The basis of DEF is to employ information communication as a tool. The fundamental of the organisation is to combat the bigger issue — poverty through information. While the popular belief suggests it is the lack of resources amongst other reasons that lead to poverty, Digital Empowerment Organisation believes it is the lack of information that triggers the problem. Information has the ability to exclude, the ability to not allow one to exercise their rights, it even allows for exploitation, and much more. This foremost objective has been the centre of focus while approaching any issue. Thus, it is safe to assume the first point of the framework for C4SC is the consideration of the importance of information as a tool or medium.
Second, Digital is viewed as a medium to advance communication and transfer information from one point to another. Digital as a mode of communication is vital, democratic, adaptable, affordable, and efficient in the 21st century to target any form of a divide in society. India happens to be an example of divides between haves and have nots, access and lack of it, or even while examining the population from an educational, health, governance perspective, there will exist a constant divide.
For instance, education; the people and the institution coexist with the divide and it has further been highlighted by the Covid-19 pandemic. About 260 or 280 million students were left disconnected during the pandemic. A report published by DEF — TypeRight shares the figures of ‘Schools with Digital Infrastructure,’ ‘Students lacking Digital resources,’ and even ‘Teachers with/without Digital Infrastructure’. The report exposes a significant digital divide in the education sector.
Similarly, there is a huge divide in ‘access to food’ between people above and below the poverty line. Additionally, the health sector holds a divide due to the lack of information access. Moreover, in the business sector, 85% to 90% of the MSME sector comprises Micro or Nano Enterprises out of the total 26 million enterprises. The data suggest how information supports organisations in the 21st century and also poses the question — how does an organisation conduct business without a significant online presence while also highlighting another divide. The smallest scale of governance that exists in a majority in India is the village level council also known as — Panchayats. Out of the 2,50,000 Panchayats, none are online, none of the elected members or their information is available online leading to a lack of transparency and accountability. For the same reason, citizens have to request an RTI. In an ideal circumstance where there is the transparency of information, RTI would be deemed irrelevant. To consider the finance sector, even today, not many hold an operational bank account and due to it availing the services digitally is too farfetched. This is another example of the divide in the Financial sector.
The five primary pillars of livelihood — finance, education, health, governance, and citizen rights are based on the free flow of information yet they reside in an ‘information poor’ zone. To resolve the gaps in information flow, the basis of the Digital Empowerment Foundation is to reach out to socially excluded organisations, people, communities and others who can be classified as ‘information poor’ to create an ecosystem of fair policy, infrastructure, tools, capacity building, training resources, educational resources, and implementation on the ground for purpose of seamless communication. In addition, seamless communication applies to both, accessing information as a consumer and producing information as a producer. Facebook has been one of the less popular modes of communication for the rural community to market local products.
Digital Empowerment Organisation through programmes such as DigiKargha, SoochnaPreneur, Community Information Resource Centre, etc. establishes a free flow of information in ascending and descending order. For example, the SoochnaPreneur programme provides digitally equipped individuals to deliver top-down information such as access to ration, transacting online, and more to be utilised by the consumer. The same programme also functions bottom-up by providing trained individuals with the opportunity to equip others in the community to sell their products through established digital channels. In the process, the exposure of communicating outside the community provides a perspective to both the sources and questions socio-cultural norms.
By going in order about DEF’s initial design considering information as the key focus followed by conversion of the framework into implementation, all the proposed questions will be answered. One of our programmes — SoochnaPreneur focuses on reducing the cost of redeeming basic computer facilities for information access. Before the launch of the programme, an individual would be required to pay the cost of transportation to the computer facility, human effort and time, and finally the cost of using the device, the internet and possibly the printer. Information was recognised as a privilege two decades ago and today, it has become a source of exclusion for poor people.
The role of information has evolved due to the role of the internet and technology becoming a necessity. For example, to travel via road, there exists a need to purchase ‘FastTag’ or pay four times the price at the Toll Plaza and for those not familiar with the technology, it is a point of exclusion. Those who managed to become connected during the internet boom evolved from privilege to necessity to noise, questioning fake and misinformation. At the same time, those who could not participate with the digital are today excluded from even availing their fundamental rights. Thus, there exists two sides of information access — the hyperactive users and the hypoactive users. In this process — information is material, communication is a tool/medium, and digital is its primary ally. The hypoactive users experience social exclusion along with the issues of misinformation and fake news.
It is also important to highlight some major tools of the ‘digital’. Not all digital tools are expensive. Digital Empowerment Foundation enables frugal design thinking in the usage of available technology while also confirming no law is breached. For example, Digital Daan is the mission established during the pandemic since digital education was not accessible by all due to limitations of devices or the internet. The programme aggregated used but functional devices procuring about 5,000 devices that were requested to be distributed amongst 5,000 households. However, DEF’s design implementations objective included — entrepreneurial factor, inclusive and participatory factor, community-based, and independence of usage.
Therefore, Community Access Points were created holding 3 to 4 tables, a desktop and a printer. These access points operate through an entrepreneur who schedules usage, maintains and develops infrastructure, and benefits through an income. Instead of helping 5,000 households, the programme was able to reach out to 3,00,000 individuals. Since the devices existed, they also served the purpose for others to access information covered in the SoochnaPreneur programme. Moreover, the programme surpassed the patriarchal norms of each household by centralising the devices providing an equal opportunity of access to all individuals. To consider the possibility of donating a device to each student of the nation, 260million devices would be required. Tamil Nadu government attempted to empower students with 1.2 million devices and it merely resolved the issue of digital access amongst high schoolers of the state.
From the experience in the Communication for Social Change and based on the research conducted by DEF — communication information is dictated by patriarchy. Thus, the primary point to note during the process is — empowering women leads to a more efficient, transparent, and cost-effective impact. The sense of accountability is better amongst women because they tend to operate within the prescribed framework resulting in lower maintenance cost, and the attrition rate is reported to be lower due to restriction of movement. To summarise, Communication for Social Change is not restricted to problems triggered by communication, information, and the uses of digital infrastructure. Therefore, the design model through its execution combats patriarchy, creates a more digitally inclusive space reducing the gender divide, and since it is reported women are more diligent in separating misinformation and fake news the flow of communication concludes to be more effective.
How many programmes by Digital Empowerment Foundation have been scaled to an advocacy level or policy level?
National Digital Literacy Mission is designed by DEF, NASSCOM Foundation, Intel, and later adopted by the government. However, only the initial curriculum was developed by DEF. Today, under the NDLM exists the Disha program currently covered by the National Budget. The second example is Community Service Centres(CSC). Developed by DEF, they are acting as access points to the communities for the government in regards to NREGA, Food distribution, Covid-19 information dissemination, etc. The third was launched last year and is known as — PMWANI. The universalisation of Last Mile Access allowing any individual or entity to serve as a WiFi Hotspot. Without the need for a license, anyone can become a Public Data Officer (PDO). One can regard it as an evolved form of PCO. This programme is recommended by TRAI with one of its basis being the experiment conducted by DEF known as ‘Wireless for Communities’. The programme utilised unlicensed or free spectrum(2.4ghz or 5.8ghz) to provide point to point or multi-point connectivity in remote areas. Furthermore, Digital Empowerment Foundation is training 20,000 women across the country to become WiFi entrepreneurs. These are several examples affecting the whole country more greatly than is required as a Civil Society Organisation.
What are the communication strategies adopted in the process for awareness of the programmes?
There are two aspects to this: One aspect focuses on communicating with trainers, capacity builders, entrepreneurs, and other stakeholders. The other side consists of the press, the government, industries, policymakers, etc.
The top-down system employs the Cadre system to communicate at a human level. Based on the note — ‘human interaction is essential, the organisation created a nation-wide system to connect with potential candidates, share the framework followed by training on digital platforms, and ensuring human interaction is maintained in the process. Under one of the frameworks, a local cadre is chosen by the strong sense of inbound entrepreneurship and the ability to take the risk for social change without focusing entirely on the commercial aspects. Thus making this a hybrid system.
In the bottom-up methodology, DEF uses newsletters, columns, op-ed’s, conferences, events, personalised letters, sharing experiences, etc. Regardless of the mediums in both, top-down and bottom-up, it is essential to ensure all the information produced is based on the ground-reality or secondary published research. For example, CSC was based on the experiment tried and tested at a small scale. For the same reason, DEF has published a column narrating the story of the ground reality instead of stating the ideal to demand change.
How do you conceptualise the intervention and in what capacity does the community participate? Moreover, what is the basis of need assessment for the communities?
DEF operates on a deep understanding of the community and to do, the starting point is the perspective of the leader of the community. Each project consists of research labelled ‘baseline data’ part of the implementation process and the proposal data for funds is based upon the understanding of the sector. Since it established that the technology itself is not satisfactory to resolve an issue, it is the implementation design of technology. For instance, empowering women with technology was not sufficient to provide independence and education. The approach rather focused on providing women with the agency to exercise their freedom of speech with consideration to their family dynamic resulting in ease of communication amongst women. It was due to this thought process and findings from experiential learnings that produced the programme design.
In conclusion, all programmes incorporate a deep knowledge of the community, its socio-economic condition, demographics, and practices and beliefs to serve a targeted technological solution.
How does a culture-centred approach fit into the programme designed by DEF?
For this case, it is safe to assume the definition of culture includes the caste and religion system amongst others. DEF’s objective is to empower marginalised and other backward communities to bring digital means of information and communication systems. These communities have an established framework that highlights basic social, economic, caste, and religious systems by the government and other institutions. For the same reason, these exclusive systems are ingrained into the design process. Moreover, infrastructure is scarce in rural or remote areas which is available in bulk to the urban population. Digital Empowerment Foundation based on given information provides access to basic amenities by creating an internet access point. Through access to the web — the community can approach the doctor through the smartphone, transact online, trade on e-commerce platforms, teach as well as receive education, and exercise other such basic rights at a low cost. In addition, ownership of these devices who have been referred to as SoochnaPreneurs is major with the members of marginalised and other backward communities to ensure equal access without any hesitance. This includes women too.
What would be other examples of drawing for expansion of small enterprises from indigenous knowledge and capacities?
There are a few case studies that can be referred to. One of them highlights the role of oral communication for illiterate members of the community since the same members can operate digitally. They overlap with poverty but yet, through tools of the digital they can communicate through voice notes, understand alphabets as signs, learn gestures, and more.
Another case study shares the objective of the organisation for not only empowering art and culture facilitators digitally but also preserve the craft. A website was developed for the artisans of Chanderi to archive over 30,000 designs. Moreover, another website preserves the designs from the Shahjanabad period of Delhi. As mentioned before, the role of information and the use of the technological tool is not only to empower communities as consumers but instead, to bring forth the root knowledge and wisdom of the communities. This is relevant for creating an information/knowledge society.
How do you go about aligning your objective with the mission of the funders or stakeholders?
I will not deny the fact that the motive of each funding is loaded with self-interest however, the organisation considers its parallel opportunity as well. It is a three principle system: persuasion, negotiation and accommodation. For example, Facebook is funding a programme with the motive of having everyone register on the social media platform. Regardless of their funding, the people do wish to join the platform. The organisation aggress to their objective and further adds its objective such as negotiating building network infrastructure. It is important to note — the organisation does not promote content based agenda instead, expands the module to include other digital activities for social change. Once Mark Zuckerberg visited the centre in Alwar to set up free internet connectivity through internet.org and later, it was reported the social media platform is breaching the privacy of users which was voiced by DEF inviting backlash. The relationship between DEF and Facebook suffered for a few years and they later chose to continue working with us.
Similarly, the Digital Daan mission was by Accenture’s funding to donate 5,000 old tablets and the organisation made the case based upon the three mentioned principles resulting in access to 3,00,000 people. Thus, making this a matter of negotiation. Another example refers to the Digital Literacy programme for which modules are provided to the organisation and yet, DEF converts it into PDF’s and make it available to be sought by the learner.
Could you give a brief on the Community Radio initiative?
The Community Radio was not the sole initiative of DEF, the organization contributed by setting up. I was a part of the committee granting community radio licenses for the Department of Telecommunications. These licenses were for NGO’s to operate a 50watt transmitter to disseminate information in a 10k.m. radius and involve the community. It is safe to consider the radio is — for the people, by the people and of the people. DEF has been involved in setting up community radio for Barefoot College amongst many other places. Furthermore, we reused the radio towers to broadcast wireless communications and managed the content to be made available digitally to be accessed globally.
Another similar example is DEF’s work with IHCI to revive the community radio as a heritage radio in Mysore and setting up a heritage museum for preservation. One more example is with Art for Hope to bring digital integration with Art and culture.
It is important to note the content produced is by the community. The participation of the community is a primary factor and in an ideal situation they would produce too but due to the lack of technical knowledge, the organisation gets involved.
What kind of communication did you use for the Neerjal programme and how did you include the geographical knowledge in the process?
Neerjal was originally the collaboration of DEF and Barefoot College at the implementation point. The aim was to locally map the portable water points, document water quality, etc. in Tilonia and other adjoining areas. The role of the organisation was to digitise the process by training the local community to collect water samples, bring them for testing and create a digital database. While it didn’t succeed at a global level, the objective of involving locals from their respective areas was deemed successful. Since the program does have potential we were hoping to work with Google maps to upload the availability of potable water by the collaboration of the locals as is done for restaurants, hotels, and other sites on the application. Gyaanpedia was the same. This initiative aims to preserve the content produced by students through regular assessments.
Could you share the efficacy of the SheHosts programme?
Airbnb wanted to expand so there were two possible opportunities: One being women earning from their homes and becoming an entrepreneur. Second, the women can become digitally included and literate. No infrastructure was required, just optimising available assets. The objective of AirBnb was to train 15,000 women to host which did not go as planned since it was the task of hosting was harder than expected, the digital literacy required to host was higher than expected, and neither were most houses as ready as thought out to be resulting in a lower conversion rate.
How do you conduct a self-evaluation and what would be the areas you’d like to prioritise over the next few years?
There are 6,000 blocks and about 739 districts in India. Half of the districts and about 3,000 blocks hold backward communities and therefore, 100,000 backward Panchayats. The hope is to reach all these zones and as digital is now a necessity, how do we ensure transparency, neutrality, and equality.