Towards equitable and sustainable community-led networks

27 Nov 2019 11:30h - 13:00h

Event report

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This round-table discussion stimulated a conversation about how connectivity excludes people, and what community networks offer and can offer to address these exclusions from a gender-neutral perspective. This included reflections on access points and community networks, and described barriers that particularly affect women, and solutions that can help whole communities..

A quick overview of what community networks are, and the need for such networks to supplement the efforts of commercial networks, which are expected to connect only 60% to 70% of the world’s population by 2025, was given by moderator Ms Kira Allman (Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Oxford) She said that the more communities build, own, and operate their own network infrastructure, the faster the world will meet Sustainable Development Goal 9C (SDG), which aims to connect everyone, worldwide. The efforts that communities are making to connect themselves feed into the overall connectivity ecosystem.

She also highlighted the human factor of community networks, especially regarding gender, as what makes them different from traditional commercial networks. She welcomed the panellists to the discussion to share their views on community networks, the sustainability of such networks, and to give reflections on gender perspectives.

More specifically, how her work in technology and innovation, and how connectivity benefits people was explained by Ms Sarbani Banerjee Belur (Technical Community, Asia-Pacific Group and Senior Research Scientist, Gram Marg Rural Broadband Initiative, Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay). She discussed the early efforts of her team to ensure inclusion in the Gram Marg Rural Broadband initiative, which spanned 34 villages close to Bombay. This was an important objective, as she realised that initially, only men were the beneficiaries of this increased connectivity. She mentioned the inaccessibility of access points, as well as content that the community does not approve of, as some of the barriers women face in taking advantage of increased connectivity.

Mentioning that her primary focus has been to study the gender and social impacts of such projects, Ms Nicola Bidwell (Professor of Computer Science (HCI), University of Namibia) described herself as a kind of grandmother where community networks are concerned. She shared her experiences of working on several community network projects in South Africa.

Perhaps similarly, a community wireless project that she worked on in Kibera – the largest slum in Nairobi, Kenya – gave Ms Josephine Miliza (African Regional Co-ordinator, APC Lock Net Project) the realisation that her technical knowledge as an engineer represented just a fraction of the whole concept of community networks. What really contributes to the success of community network projects is human networking, which is part of ensuring meaningful access rather than just building technical infrastructure. She touched on the perspectives that women bring to community network projects: they are concerned about how connectivity benefits their children and their families, rather than it being used as an avenue for fun and games. These inputs encouraged the design of training programmes to ensure that the benefits and the use of connectivity are understood properly by women in the community.

Describing the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) as a ‘mobile organisation network that works towards enabling conditions for people to have easy and affordable access to ICTs through the Internet’, Ms Valeria Betancourt (Policy Programme Manager, APC) explained how the APC Lock Net Project, works to create more favourable conditions for community networks to thrive and to scale in a sustainable manner. She mentioned the different challenges that the project, which contains 12 community networks, has faced, such as governance and social issues and not just technical problems.

Ms Jane Coffin (Senior Advisor to the CEO, Connectivity & Infrastructure, Internet Society (ISOC)) shared her experiences from working with various people on the panel as a representative of ISOC, which works to support community network projects worldwide. In particular, she mentioned relevant regulatory challenges and the policy changes that are necessary to address them. She also talked about how community network projects have a focus on community empowerment, and as such, ISOC engages people from communities as much as possible to help with sustainability training. ISOC’s philosophy has been to work with local stakeholders to positively affect change at the community level.

Returning to gender inclusion, in the follow-up discussion, Miliza talked about how economic factors affect inclusion in relation to access. Citing her experiences in Kenya and in Siberia, she said that women are still economically dependent on men due to the wage gap, which affects the ability of women to afford smartphones and other devices that serve as a means to connect. This creates challenges that affect inclusion. She also identified the lack of content and platforms that consider the unique needs of women and attributed this to the low numbers of women that participate in the design of technologies and applications.

Other panellists contributed by identifying mainly sociocultural factors that inhibit meaningful gender participation. For instance, Coffin shared that in one community, being a female technologist makes you seem like some sort of spy. Bidwell added that in most cases, women lack decision-making power in their communities.

By Jacob Odame-Baiden