Global Digital Library

Community Informatics for Rural Development

by Allan Baer, President, EcoSage Corporation
© August 2000


The Global Digital Library (GDL) is a proposed international alliance of donor agencies, non-governmental and faith-based organizations, educational institutions, and private corporations in developed nations collaborating with national governments, regional churches, educational institutions, and civil society organizations in developing countries committed to creating a community-owned library system for rural development. At the community level and at the core of the library network are democratically managed independent civil society organizations established for the sole purpose to own, operate, and maintain a proposed system of 10,000 "bricks and mortar" libraries connected to the World Wide Web.

Mission Statement

The mission of the Global Digital Library (GDL) is to provide an information services and support network to empower rural communities in developing countries with the requisite technology infrastructure, financial capacity, and human resources to achieve sustainable economic development and permanently alleviate poverty. The goal of the GDL is to develop a network consisting of 10,000 wireless, electronic libraries to improve the lives of 100 million people.

Rationale / Rural Libraries for the Information Age

In the Information Age the "Digital Library" concept is emerging as a new model for information retrieval and storage, knowledge acquisition and management, and communications for rural development. Driven by Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) the Digital Library, in the commercial sector known as a Telecenter or Cybercafe, is viewed as providing the capacity to transform individuals and communities, and to alleviate poverty. Analysts in developing countries, however, perceive this ICT agenda---conceived of and financed by developed nations---as continuing and possibly accelerating deprivation and poverty for their peoples, especially in countries lacking in the requisite social infrastructure, financial capacity, and information culture to successfully implement and sustain ICT development.

These analysts point to the phenomenon commonly known as the Digital Divide---the growing chasm of technology "haves and have-nots, know and know-nots" defined along political, economic, and racial lines---as evidence for their argument. The rapid advances in communication and information technologies in developed nations have created a breakpoint, or "divide", that is today more insidious than previous cultural and economic breakpoints. The information revolution is creating a new class of people with highly specialized training, a corporate controlled technology infrastructure, and a global knowledge base conceptually and physically impenetrable to the untrained and the disenfranchised. Yet, in a world with increasingly complex social, political, economic, and ecological stress points, it has been argued by many that there are, in fact, no alternatives to the adoption of ICT by developing countries. Both advocates and critics agree that a global information infrastructure is, perhaps, an essential social development tool as the modern world enters the 21st Century.

It is uncertain, however, how this transition will be managed and financed given the constraints of limited financial resources and the narrow commercial focus of the private sector drivers of ICT development, including international development banks. Advocates in developing countries fear that ICT development may ultimately contribute to greater debt and lead to new political tensions. The Global Digital Library is a response to the challenge and the promise of ICT for rural development. It is a cornerstone of social development in the Information Age with the mission to empower rural communities with the requisite technology infrastructure, financial capacity, and human resources to manage the transition to the information culture through a locally determined process.

To achieve this goal, the GDL is proposed as a philanthropic venture with two core principles: donor financing with local ownership and control by beneficiary communities, and a democratic information process and social management practice commonly referred to as Community Informatics.

Donor Funding: A GDL network consisting of 10,000 libraries is estimated at a cost of approximately $20,000 per library, or $200 million for the total GDL network, with annual operating costs at approximately $20 million, or $2,000 per library facility. Funds for the capital and recurring costs of the GDL network will come from international donor agencies and an annual library membership campaign.

Community Informatics (CI): A community-based ICT strategy, CI is the principal methodology for information and communications management of the GDL network at the community level. The CI process---participatory and democratic---links economic and social development efforts at the community level with institutional resources at the global level.

The Information Age is enabling the developed nations to advance the agenda of globalization. While globalization can bring vast benefits to isolated rural communities, it may also accelerate cultural extinction. It is the vision of the GDL network to empower local communities through local self-determination and the CI process to benefit from access to global information while preserving traditional knowledge and cultural practices.

Community Informatics in the Development Process

"Information is a basic human right and the fundamental foundation for the formation of democratic institutions."

Nelson Mandela

Today, it is universally accepted that information and communications are essential preconditions for development. Development is, in fact, the process of applying scientific knowledge to improve upon traditional social management structures and cultural practices. But the ICT development agenda of multi-national donor agencies is moving away from the notion of development as improving upon traditional cultural practices. The 1995 report by the World Bank Group (WBG) entitled Harnessing Information for Development, A Proposal for a World Bank Group Strategy clearly articulates this shift: "ICT development dictates for developing countries a major agenda for structural adjustment---deregulation and privatization of the telecommunications infrastructure." Implicit in this structural adjustment strategy is that privatizing information services and creating new market economies---information economies controlled by the multi-national corporate sector---are the principal means to achieve social equity and sustainable economic development.

The key principle of Community Informatics is that information is a basic human right, not a commodity. CI argues for the creation of a community-owned, public ICT infrastructure. The proposed GDL is decentralized library network locally owned and managed through a democratic process at the community level. Community Informatics presents in and of itself a structural adjustment with a communications paradigm shift from the concept of one-to-many to the concept of many-to-many, horizontal versus top-down, creating the possibility of information and knowledge collaborations by and for affected communities. This paradigm shift, as defined in a recent Rockefeller Foundation Report, brings the potential to rebalance strategic approaches to communication and development by taking the overriding emphasis:

Grey-Felder/Deane 1999
Communication for Social Change:
A Position Paper and Conference Report

In the Information Age, the GDL is an essential community resource enabling the dynamic rather than static flow of information and knowledge for human development, reinforcing information and communications as a human right embedded in democratically managed Community Informatics process.

Components of the GDL Network

The GDL network consists of four key components:

Systems Management Group (SMG): To achieve economies of scale, the GDL alliance requires a central systems management group to develop and maintain critical ICT components and to support knowledge management systems. The SMG, consisting of key alliance members and service providers, will solicit donor funds, develop ICT architecture, maintain systems operations, provide project management, support library content development, and supervise training. GDL alliance members will advise SMG operations.

Regional Support Center (RSC): To provide field support, the GDL alliance requires regional support centers to provide direct support services to the ICT infrastructure in rural communities. RSCs may be located at regional universities and/or vocational education centers with the capacity to develop technical support, equipment servicing, and training to a regional GDL library network. RSCs will also coordinate alliance activities in support of the GDL at the national or regional level.

Library Server Center (LSC): To support multiple libraries in a concentrated cluster of rural communities, the GDL alliance will develop and maintain locally owned and operated rural LSCs. The LSC will provide low cost, high-efficiency broadband satellite services to a wireless local area network (LAN). The LSC may consist of a dedicated facility of approximately 1,500 square feet, computer servers, computer workstations, router and receiver for synchronous 2-Mbps satellite access, desktop publishing and document storage equipment, digital video and audio equipment for multi-media presentations, solar electric power equipment, and library reference materials. Staffed with volunteers trained at regional support centers, the LSC will provide direct training and support services to its host community and networked Remote Library Workstations within LAN service areas.

Remote Library Workstation (RLW): To provide ICT services at the user community level, the GDL alliance will develop and maintain locally owned and operated remote library workstations. Connected to an LSC by line-of-sight, wireless technology, RLWs may be located at public access facilities---libraries, schools, medical clinics, agricultural research centers, or community centers. An RLW may consist of a computer network or stand-alone computer workstation, a router and wireless antenna, a printer, and other specialized equipment according to end-user specifications.

Distribution and Impact

In developing countries in Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas there are approximately 340,000 villages and towns beyond the telephone lines and fiber optic backbone of global telecommunications infrastructure. Working residents of these rural communities are earning on the average between one and two dollars per day and cannot afford the consumer costs associated with extending telecommunications services to their rural communities. A GDL network design consisting of 1,000 Library Server Centers supporting 9 Rural Library Workstations (9,000 total workstations) in concentrated clusters of communities with an aggregate population of 100,000 or more may impact the quality of life for nearly 100 million people. Achieving this impact will cost approximately $2 per person in capital costs and $.20 per year per person in recurring costs. Each individual may not benefit directly from the use of GDL information and communications services. It is, rather, through the application of a locally determined Community Informatics Master Planning process initiated by community leaders and key information providers---elders, civic and religious leaders, health care workers, teachers, and community development specialists---that the impact of GDL information will benefit the population of entire communities.

Content and Technology, a new Cultural Convergence

"It can be no accident that there is no wealthy developed country today that is information-poor, and no information-rich country that is poor and undeveloped."

Mahathir Mohammed
Prime Minister, Malaysia

The Information Revolution is transforming access to knowledge. In developed nations, the digital library movement is developing public access information portals in all sectors of society---government, institutional, civil, and corporate. The GDL alliance is committed to provide access to this information by designing the GDL network to the metrics of the digital library movement. These design criteria are essential not only to access the multi-media global knowledge network, but also to empower rural communities to generate and distribute content in a standard platform in order to collaborate with other affected communities utilizing global information resources to solve common issues. From systems platform architecture to field equipment, a Systems Management Group will maintain standard digital library metrics throughout the design of the GDL network, permitting high capacity transfers such as video streaming, video conferencing, and large data file transfer.

The design of the GDL architectural platform, however, must at one and the same time support the CI process. In the Community Informatics methodology, development objectives are determined through a social process, which in turn drives content. While it is true that no wealthy developed nation is information poor, it is critically important for poor communities not to denigrate traditional information by valuing external, empirical knowledge over their own vast cultural and environmental knowledge. Conversely, the adoption of science-based innovations and technologies by local people is often stifled by the perceived and real incompatibilities with traditional value systems and cultural practices. Overcoming these barriers requires that each participant become an architect in a cultural convergence best described as a delicate balance between asserting western empiricism embedded in information technology while strengthening the capacity for the diverse traditional knowledge of local people. The dialectic tension between these two epistemologies needs to be continually monitored, addressed, and resolved to prevent ICT for rural development from being plagued by the cultural disparities that have resulted in the failure of previous technology development initiatives.

It is only in the recent past that decision-makers and members of the political and scientific communities have "discovered" that indigenous people are experts in many fields, including environmental management, agriculture, and medicine. This discovery is reinforced by Chapter 26 of Agenda 21, which calls for the "recognition of [indigenous peoples’] values, traditional knowledge, and resource management practices with a view to promoting environmentally sound and sustainable development." Yet the complexity of political, social, economic, and environmental impacts on rural communities in developing countries as a consequence of globalization renders traditional knowledge insufficient to cope with the empirical methodologies often required for analysis and problem solving. For the GDL to meet local development objectives utilizing standard architecture, managing the cultural convergence of content with technology will be a key ongoing task of the GDL at all levels of project implementation.


The GDL calls for a 1-year planning period in which the GDL concept will be fully defined, a core alliance management team organized, a strategic implementation plan developed, a pilot project assessed, and a capital campaign launched. The planning period will be followed by a 9-year program rollout in which over 100 Library Server Centers in a local area network with approximately 7 – 12 Rural Library Workstations will be installed each year. An alliance membership consisting of the GDL management team, donor agencies, civil and religious organizations representing beneficiary communities will develop an implementation schedule and library distribution plan utilizing a Request-for-Proposal (RFP) process in order to assess technology requirements and measure community impacts against GDL projected goals.


updated 2002 October 3