From Vietnam: Improving Internet Access, One Village at a Time
September 2, 2009
It took us much longer than expected to get to Ta Ca, a highland commune in Vietnam’s Nghe An province near the Lao border. Although it was a sunny afternoon, the narrow road from our hotel to our destination, Ta Ca’s Cultural Post Office (CPO), was riddled with potholes filled with slick mud that threatened to send us careening off the road at each twist and turn. The Ta Ca CPO was our first site visit on a tour of 10 such sites across rural Nghe An. We knew we had many long, bumpy roads ahead, but our team, comprised of a representative from the National Library of Vietnam, two representatives from the Nghe An Provincial Library, and myself, was eager in anticipation of what we would discover.
Since public libraries in Vietnam cannot feasibly reach everyone in deep rural or mountainous areas, such as Ta Ca, the government began adding library books and limited Internet access to the 8,000 CPOs that typically only provided post and telecommunication services to the rural communities. Despite such efforts, an overwhelming 80 percent of CPO users still think of them only as places to make phone calls and send mail, while just 17 percent realize that they provide Internet access, according to a needs assessment report published this month by The Asia Foundation with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Which brings us back to the bumpy road on the way to Ta Ca: Our mission was to interview staff, users, and community leaders to better understand what services public libraries and CPOs are currently offering, the staff’s levels of IT and computer knowledge, and how services can be enhanced to meet the needs of the communities.
This is the first step of our 18-month project, implemented by The Asia Foundation in partnership with the National Library of Vietnam and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to expand Internet access across Vietnam. By collecting data through interviews, questionnaires, and field surveys, we are identifying the kind of training programs and materials needed to respond to such needs. Field surveys were conducted earlier this year in three provinces: Thai Nguyen, Nghe An, and Tra Vinh.
The CPO in Ta Ca is a small room divided into two areas: the inner area is designated for mail and telephone services, while the outer area includes three computers with dial-up Internet connection, an old table, and some chairs. A small bookcase with a few neglected books and legal reference materials covered in dust sat in the corner.
Our afternoon began with interviews with the CPO staff to analyze the effectiveness of the services provided at Ta Ca. The CPO manager said that he had no IT skills but his second son, who worked in Danang City, nearly 500 kilometers away, was quite skilled. When we asked how he would fix computer and Internet connectivity problems when they arose, he said that if his son were not home, he would call the district post office for support. I remembered the road here and wondered how fast the district post office, nearly 20 kilometers away, could realistically respond. When asked who usually used the Internet, he admitted that most were kids playing games and catching up with friends in chat rooms.
Leaving the interview, I took a walk down the main road to get a sense of the surroundings and find out why the CPO was so underused. Many of the houses were old and small, and I figured that most people were still at work since I only noticed older folks and small children sitting around talking and playing. I approached a crowd and explained the purpose of our visit to Ta Ca.
A volunteer introduced himself as the head of Canh village, one of the 11 villages in Ta Ca commune. He said that he knew about the CPO, but had only used its telephone services a few times. He, like most families in Ta Ca, had telephones now and therefore had not visited the CPO for some time. When I asked if he had heard about the Internet and its potential benefits to the community, he admitted that he only knew what he had heard from his children who occupy much of their time there playing computer games.
After I explained the goals of our project to him and presented a few ideas of how the Internet could be helpful, such as offering access to information on educational and employment opportunities and solutions to common illnesses and natural disasters, he became enthusiastic. During our conversation, he became eager to use the Internet to research information related to malaria, and the latest about farming new rice varieties. He planned to print multiple copies of the information and distribute them throughout the community and hoped that the CPO would also receive more books and updated newspapers as additional resources.
I left Canh village thinking of the big challenges that lie ahead as we use this information to build CPOs into valuable community resources. Basic infrastructure is in need of upgrading and staff members need training in basic IT and library skills as well as community outreach strategies in order to effectively communicate the benefits of the CPOs and the Internet.
However, we left as optimistic as we had arrived, with the enthusiastic response from people like the head of Canh village who could clearly see how basic and critical information accessed via the Internet can help improve the lives of his villagers. We began the drive to our next destination.
Dinh Kieu Nhung is The Asia Foundation’s Office Manager in Vietnam where she also manages projects that focus on human resources capacity building. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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