E-Libraries Bridge Digital Divide Across Sri Lanka-TBP
The Sri Lankan government installed e-library computer centers in hundreds of community centers and places of worship across Sri Lanka to combat the country’s digital divide, increase digital literacy and stimulate the economy in rural areas.

The Program, e-Library Nenasala (eLNP), is completely free to the public, no matter what background a person comes from. “The eLibray Nenasalas have literally opened the gateway to wisdom and knowledge in rural Sri Lanka,” explains Nenasala’s website.

The program originally began in an environment of despair and desparation— the tsunami in the Indian Ocean of December 26, 2004. A total of 35,000 Sri Lankans died that day. Family members and friends urgently needed access to communication and information, and both were facilitated by the e-library program.

The computer centers across Sri Lanka have increased the country’s computer usage and technological literacy rate from below 10 percent in 2004, to nearly 40 percent today.

Computers and internet access have given communities access to life-changing services and information. Children can stream videos on learning the English language; women can learn about nutrition, breast-feeding, sanitation and vaccinations. Farmers can learn how to increase their crop yields, and entrepreneurs have access to information on how to start a business. Migrant workers staying in Sri Lanka can also Skype with family members in far-away countries.

Community members, thanks to their access to computers, now have access to assistance with how to write a resume or conduct a job search. Adults can fill out important applications online such as passports or driver’s licenses; they can also take government examinations.

The Nenasala computer centers also bring the community together; teens are trained in computer skills, and then volunteer to teach older community members.

“Without a doubt, the e-Library Nenasala Program is making a real and lasting impact on the lives of poor rural residents throughout Sri Lanka. People are getting locally relevant information and hands-on experience in the subject areas that matter most to them. Community members have a real investment in these centers, which promotes their longevity and sustainability for many years to come,” explained Deborah Jacobs, who directs the global libraries initiative at the Gates Foundation.

So far, 283 e-Library computer centers have been built. When the program first began, the government “knew that the low-income, rural residents it was targeting wouldn’t necessarily flock to the Nenasalas, or ‘wisdom centers.’ Fear, distrust, or just plain unfamiliarity would likely keep them away” explained Impatient Optimists, The Gates Foundation’s website.

For this reason, the e-library computer centers are based in some of the most trustworthy places of all— places of worship. This unconventional cultural adaptation has been critical in the success of the E-Library Program. “These institutions are seen as community centers and places of learning. They are familiar, welcoming, and trusted,” said Impatient Optimists.

E-Libraries can be found in Muslim Mosques, Buddhist Temples, Christian churches and Hindu Kovils across Sri Lanka.

Temples have been an especially effective location for the e-libraries because of their traditional, ancient association with learning as well as their role as the center of the village. The temples of Sri Lanka are also open to all people, no matter the race, gender, age or even religion. Small donations from the community help to keep the e-libraries functioning and up-to-date.

The eLNP program has been so effective that it received the Gates Foundation’s Access to Learning Award, a one million dollar value. The award began 15 years ago to promote providing the world’s poor with access to technology.

The organization plans to use the money to upgrade hardware at various locations. eLNP also plans to begin a new program where community members can temporarily rent tablets and install education software for children where there is not ample access to schooling.

The Sri Lankan government hopes to increase computer literacy and usage rates through the Nenasala computer centers to 75 percent by 2016.

– Aaron Andree

Sources: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Impatient Optimists, Philanthropy News Digest