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Working voluntarily for an inclusive society

Susan O'Donnell has just published a very interesting report on the role of voluntary organisations in the move toward an inclusive information society in Europe. A copy can be obtained from the following address: http://www.models-research.ie/publications/list.html The fact that this research was funded by the European Commission's IST programme may be an encouraging sign that the EU is starting to take seriously the extremely important role played by voluntary organisations in the cohesion of civil society.

Encouraging use of the Internet

Amongst the recommendations made in the report, one refers to the additional effort that should be made in EU programmes like eEurope to encourage the use of the Internet by voluntary organisations. I'd like to qualify this statement by pleading for an "integrated" approach to the use of ICTs. By "integrated", I mean that strategies related to the use of such technologies need to be firmly anchored in the context of meaningful usage in everyday activities. In "Networking for Change", Karen Banks stresses the importance of the human side of work with women's groups and ICTs within the Women's Networking Support Programme of APC. She writes "the Programme tries to be relevant and therefore a part of women's lives."

There are associations whose whole raison d'être is to spread the use of the Internet. Susan O'Donnell calls them "champions". That is to say, organisations that deliver support and services aimed at encouraging access and effective use of ICTs by people experiencing disadvantage. They take an active role in training others and in bringing home the message either to the population they work with or in collaboration on policy issues with public authorities. Susan points to two other categories of voluntary organisations active in spreading the word about ICTs: the mediators and the supporters. Mediators act as front-line conduits between disadvantaged groups and ICTs, in particular as far as relaying content is concerned. Supporters are those organisations that set an example and act as models for others in their everyday use of ICTs in their work with disadvantaged groups.

Catering for the disadvantaged

As part of a drive to move to a more "inclusive" Information Society", the report is centred on the need of those who are disadvantaged when it comes to taking part. On a certain level, social inclusion and exclusion are questions of perspective. There are all sorts of groupings and divisions of society that we don't belong to, yet we do not necessarily feel excluded. The feeling of exclusion depends on two factors: wanting to be part of a group and not being able to become part of it for various reasons. I will not go into the second factor here, but want to concentrate on the first: the question of desire. Few people probably consciously desire to be part of the Information Society. The concept is too abstract. However, very many people want to benefit from what they perceive to be the advantages of using the Internet and computer technologies. Their desires in this direction are continually fuelled by commerce but also by governments and certain voluntary organisations. When the avocates of a technical system seek to make it all inclusive, there will necessarily be a problem of exclusion. Public authrrôrities deny that online administration will ever replace traditional access, but as their main aim is to reduce costs, any hoped-for reducation will not be possible if they have to run two parallel systems: one online and the other offline. Is it not possible that part of the problem of exclusion stems from an unavowed desire on the part of many advocates of the move to the information society (including those battling against exclusion) that it ultimately be all embracing.

The local and the global

Adopting a larger perspective here could be helpful. I'd like to set this discussion in a wider context by considering the relationship between the local community and the globalised economy and the role that voluntary organisations play or could play in finding a satisfactory, sustainable balance between the local and the global. Depending upon how we do this, I suspect that we may well be able to partly treat the question of exclusion at the same time. Let me take a concrete example. Before doing so, I apologise for not further developing the points that such an example raises as that would take us away from our subject here. The vast majority of people in the little lakeside village where I live in Switzerland, Saint-Blaise, could hardly be called disadvantaged. More than half of them already have access to the Internet ... Yet globalisation constitutes a serious threat to them, to their community and to their way of life. Adopting Internet use is no panacea in this threatening situation. Some of them may well loose their jobs sooner or later as smaller companies give way to international giants with not the slightest interest in the impact of corporate decisions on local life. The villagers might also find that the heart-warming conviviality of village life has turned somewhat cold in a world dominated by media promising to put them in contact with the whole world. Instead, they may end up finding themselves alone and without help especially when they need it most. The point I am seeking to make is that the wider perspective pleads for a necessary reinforcement of the local face-to-face community as an essential counterpart and a healthy counterbalance to the growing globalisation and in so doing you necessarily move towards a more "inclusive" society. Exclusion is a question of values. Technology on its own cannot exclude people if the community using that technology and taking the decisions about its use is driven by values that recognise the inherent richness of each individual and the importance of each member for the community as a whole.

Strengthening the local community

How do you strengthen the local community? By reinforcing individual identification with the community including by cherishing local history and achievements; by encouraging meaningful face to face exchange; by recognising the skills of one-another and sharing these. At the same time, the local community needs to be open to what is happening elsewhere. If the community stands strengthened by the efforts we mention, it can more readily open to outside influences without feeling unduly threatened. It is just such work we are trying to do with Saint-Blaise.Net. Use of the Internet as a tool in our work is secondary to strengthening local identity while fostering openness. A brief example. One of the local bakers bakes bread in the traditional fashion using wood-fuelled fires. A brief article about his work on the Saint-Blaise.Net site has provoked considerable interest in French speaking countries. I have relayed messages from several countries to him. He himself has no Internet access. He was quite surprised and probably a little proud to realise that his activities sparked off so much interest. Suddenly he sees his work and his role in society from a different perspective.

The role of governments ...

Having recognised the importance of voluntary organisations, how should governments act to encourage the activities of those organisations? The report puts forward a list of various constructive lines of action that can be loosely categorised as related to working, online government and participation in the knowledge based-economy. Despite the evident good will, the overall impression is one of an orientation that sets technology in the forefront. Expressions such as "digital literacy", "generalised public access to online services" and "build the capacity for voluntary organisations to use ICTs" set the tone. Admittedly, it is very difficult to avoid being centred on technology when you carry out research within an international framework programme that takes technology as its starting point. What is required is a wider perspective that starts not from technology but from the role of voluntary organisations particularly within the local and regional context and the role they can play both in reinforcing the local community and encouraging openness and innovation. Any satisfactory decision-making in such a complex interrelated context requires a systemic approach that considers the interrelations between the actors and instances involved. Dishing out money alone is no answer. Training people if they don't have the necessary logistical support to go further is no answer either. Before all else, what is needed is to help the local communities to reach a better understanding of the overall context in which they live and work and to encourage them to act for themselves. How better to do so than by favouring the activities of independant, voluntary organisations made of citizens themselves.

... and research

The report also addresses the question of the role of future research in creating an inclusive information society. Research work is necessarily centred on understanding mechanisms so as to be able to improve the way things are done: acquiring skills; producing content; improving work capacities with ICTs; ... I'd like to clarify this call for additional research seen as a road to understanding. Research develops knowledge. The central questions about this research being: who has this knowledge, who needs it, is it in a form they can use, is it pertinent and how do you transfer the knowledge to those who need it? In the normal course of events, research workers from outside study a situation involving others. On the basis of their observations, they elaborate hypothesis about what is happening and what can be done to improve things. They write a report and submit it to those who fund them and publish papers for their learned pairs. They might even organise a seminar for those they have studied to provide them with feedback. Unfortunately there is a very serious shortcoming in this approach. The crux of research is learning from and in a situation, but it is not those directly concerned with the situation who learn in the process. Transferring the knowledge to them after the fact is extremely inefficient and perhaps even impossible. The managers of the European Framework programmes have come to realise that what they call "diffusion" of results was getting a poor deal and have tried to reinforce the spread of knowledge developed. However, any attempt to share research results with the actors concerned after the fact comes too late. It is condemned from the outset by the scientific paradigm that would have research workers outside the situation they seek to understand.

Alan McCluskey, Saint-Blaise.

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Created: November 19th, 2001 - Last up-dated: November 19th, 2001