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The Leland Initiative


   Introduction 

Formally launched on 4 June 1996, the Leland Initiative (LI) has proved to be one of the most effective projects to bring Internet access to the African continent.  Designed as a five-year USD 15 million United States Government effort, LI seeks to promote the use of the Internet as a means of fostering sustainable social and economic development in approximately 20 African countries.  Administered by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), LI is designed to help Africans realize the power of the Internet as a communication and development tool.  Working with international and domestic partners, USAID helps target states get the infrastructure and training necessary for becoming active participants in the global information society.  

Since its inception, LI facilitation has helped many African states to modernize their governments, environmental protection programmes, agricultural production mechanisms, education institutions and healthcare systems.  While it is still too early to definitively determine its long-term effectiveness, LI and its affiliated USAID programmes demonstrate that access to information and the global knowledge pool can significantly increase the capacities of indigenous communities, thus sending Africa on a more positive development trajectory.

Background

Despite the great strides made by some African states in terms of ICT-based development, the continent as a whole remains largely disconnected from the global information and communication network.  In an effort to make LI relevant to the unique institutional, legal and social environments throughout Africa, USAID and its partners designed the project to be flexible and scalable across different levels of development.  While the overall goal was to bring affordable information access and contextually relevant content to the continent, USAID identified three key objectives that would determine the effectiveness of LI.  The objectives include: 

  • Creating an enabling environment: This includes helping African governments reform ineffective institutional and policy structures, while breaking down barriers to connectivity to the global information network.  The project managers believed that by reforming the policy framework governing the deployment and diffusion of ICTs in Africa they could help make the Internet affordable, free and open to all members of society.  Initially the LI focused on introducing competition and pricing reforms to Internet supply.  However, since 2001, the LI has begun to focus on broader telecommunications policy and regulatory capacity.

  • Encouraging the establishment of a sustainable supply of Internet access: LI is helping countries committed to establishing an Internet-friendly policy environment to establish an effective and reliable national Internet gateway.  LI experts and consultants provided equipment, training, marketing and business plan development and helped national gateway operators to create a level playing field for indigenous Internet Service Providers.  These ISPs began to serve as the engine for a dynamic and growing information access industry.  USAID also encouraged indigenous ISPs to form local Internet Society Chapters to advocate and support the development of the market. 

  • Using the Internet as a tool for sustainable development: By brokering domestic and international partnerships, LI organizers helped facilitate information sharing between all of the stakeholders involved in the modernization process, including the private sector, civil society and government entities.  A key component of this objective is to help Africans develop the skills necessary for using the Internet and related ICTs, thus contributing to the creation of a broader user base and a sustainable market.

With these objectives in mind, USAID country mission representatives began by assessing the feasibility of ICT development in a given country, looking into the national telecom policies, infrastructure build out and demand for modern ICTs.    

Implementation 

During the assessment stage, each target country is ranked on a variety of factors, ranging from ICT strategy and mission, institutional use of information, comprehension on the potential contributions that ICTs can have to sustainable development, infrastructure build out and potential for success.  Once the country assessment reports and rankings have been completed, the project administrators work with USAID begin outlining innovative ways to promote the use of ICTs in African institutions.   Drawing on the existing development strategy plans developed by USAID missions (e.g. USAID/Mali), the project administrators begin looking for partner institutions, organizations or individuals for ICT implementations.  One crucial component for successful deployment and diffusion of ICTs in any society is identifying a ďchampionĒ to serve as an advocate or opinion leader on the projectís behalf.  Finding such a champion is an important element to ensure the success of LI over the long term.

Despite the realization that ICTs can be a productive force in addressing underdevelopment or information poverty, barriers exist in many African countries that hinder the deployment of modern technologies.  These barriers can be a means of maintaining existing power arrangements or the incumbent telecommunication carrierís market position, and they often keep the country at the margins of the world society.  Ineffective telecommunication policies, lack of awareness and technology, under-trained technicians, and computer illiteracy are some of the key hurdles that LI has had to overcome.  To address these barriers, USAID offers a variety of training and skills development workshops for local project managers and members of the community.  

Success factors   

Since it was launched, the Leland Initiative has helped over 20 African states realize the power of ICTs for social and economic development.  Together with international and domestic partners, USAID has successfully implemented a variety of innovative ICT-based projects that have helped tap into the creative capacities and the entrepreneurial spirit of thousands of Africans.  While there are a variety of success stories stemming from the LI, there are a few examples that have been extremely important in the continentís knowledge revolution.  First, realizing the ineffectiveness of the institutional governing structures that are commonplace throughout Africa, USAID sought to empower citizens by providing them with access to electronic information in an effort to promote democracy on the continent.  Leveraging the increased connectivity to the global information network brought by the LI, USAID has helped civil society use digital media systems to open new communication channels with the state and decision makers. 

USAIDís Learnlink project, a forerunner and partner of the LI, empowers marginalized groups by providing them with culturally and contextually relevant technologies that are necessary for sustainable development.  Specifically, Learnlink allows disparate individuals and groups to work together via ICTs to improve access to basic educational resources.  Learnlink has been especially important to women who are often excluded from formal education and information relating to modern healthcare resources in many African states.  

Finally, given that the agricultural sector is vitally important to most African communities, USAID has helped local farmers and agricultural associates utilize ICTs to their advantage.  There are three key agriculture focused ICT programmes initiated by LI.  First is the AfricaLink project that provides linkages between scientists and policy makers in an effort to share regional agricultural, environmental and natural resource information via electronic networks.  Second, the Agribusiness Association programme is designed to help small and medium sized agribusinesses become more efficient and productive by using electronic networking to gain access to critical market information and innovative business strategies.  Finally, The Famine Early Warning System (FEWS) uses a variety of ICTs, specifically radios, to rapidly disseminate information to decision makers in order to avert famine in sub-Saharan Africa.  

Summary

While this is just a snapshot of the innovative programmes that have been enabled by the LI, they clearly demonstrate that ICTs play an important role in creating modern and sustainable environments throughout Africa.  The most important element to the LI and the development projects created by greater continent-wide connectivity is making ICTs and applications contextually and culturally relevant.  The Leland Initiative is really a story of courage and vigour in Africa Ė the courage of African leaders to adopt far-reaching policy reforms, and the vigour of the African private sectors who have responded so strongly to the opportunities that these policies have created.  

For further information on the Leland Initiative and USAIDís ICT-related development projects, see:


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