The Role of Politics in Telecentres: Cases from South Africa

The Role of Politics in Telecentres: Cases from South Africa

Einar Braathen (Norwegian Institute for Urban and Regional Research (NIBR), Norway), Heidi Attwood (University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa) and Julian May (University of the Western Cape, South Africa)
Copyright: © 2012 |Pages: 20
DOI: 10.4018/jep.2012070101
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Abstract

What has been the role of politics within and around the community telecentres (TCs)? The background is the depoliticized international discourse that has accompanied ICT4D policies. The focus is on multi-purpose TCs run by non-governmental organizations, equipped with computers and internet connectivity, tasked to implement public ICT-to-the-poor policies. Specifically, the article discusses the differences of technical-social functionality of such TCs within the same country and policy context. The assumption is that empowerment, particularly of the local operating organization and its personnel, is a key factor. The strategy is to combine stakeholder and power analysis to assess the extent of empowerment by exploring a multi-dimensional framework for understanding power relations. Four TCs in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, were studied over a two-year period of repeated visits of intensive fieldwork of participatory observation and interviews. The research found that big differences existed between the TCs in terms of empowerment. Changes in power relations are necessary, although not sufficient, conditions for a community TC to function in the way desired. Moreover, three stages of empowerment are suggested, highlighting the Operating Organization, the TC manager/staff and the TC users, respectively. The article concludes by reflecting on the analytical-theoretical framework for power relations.
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Approaching Telecentres (Tcs)

A multi-purpose TC refers to a place providing “connectivity and access to information via a range of information and communication technologies including phone, fax, computers and the internet” (Bailur, 2007, p. 62). They can be run commercially as small businesses with some non-commercial features or they can be run by community organizations as non-profit and subsidized facilities for community benefit (Dymond et al., 2010).

Most of the ICT4D literature on TCs has been evaluations or studies commissioned by development or government agencies. These reports have been rather managerially oriented and deal with issues related to the success of TCs such as access, usage and sustainability, and lessons to be learnt from TCs based on case studies from developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America. A pioneering and critical report was written by Benjamin (2001a, 2001b) about the first TCs in South Africa. There are examples of research into factors explaining the impact of TCs on poor communities, but their focus tends to be narrowed to the impact of certain managerial-organizational designs chosen (Parkinson, 2005; Kumar & Best, 2006; Dymond et al., 2010). Few efforts have been made at theorizing beyond generating operational knowledge, and local political and social contexts and factors are usually not part of the analytical-theoretical framework. There are two types of research about TCs that oppose the managerialist mainstream and emphasize politics.

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