When the Sri Lankan government decided to create the e-Library Nenasala Program (eLNP) and build hundreds of computer centers all over the country in order to increase digital literacy, it knew that the low-income, rural residents it was targeting wouldn’t necessarily flock to the Nenasalas, or “wisdom centers.” Fear, distrust, or just plain unfamiliarity would likely keep them away.
That’s why the Information and Communication Technology Agency decided to put many of the Nenasalas in houses of worship—Buddhist temples, Hindu kovils, Muslim mosques, and Christian churches—along with public libraries. These institutions are seen as community centers and places of learning. They are familiar, welcoming, and trusted.
Thanks in part to that brilliant idea, eLNP, the winner of this year’s Access to Learning Award, has been a great success. With 283 centers, eLNP constitutes a key component of the wider Nenasala telecenter network which currently numbers more than 770 country-wide. The Nenasalas have helped increase Sri Lanka’s computer usage and IT literacy rate from below 10 percent in 2004 to almost 40 percent today. The government’s goal is to reach 75 percent by 2016.
The program was launched days after the devastating tsunami in the Indian Ocean on December 26, 2004, when 35,000 Sri Lankans perished. It was a time when people urgently needed information and ways to communicate, and eLNP was there to help.
Today, everyone can find a reason to visit and use the services of these Nenasalas. Farmers are finding valuable information online to help them increase their yields. Entrepreneurs are learning how to start and run a business. School children can learn English with a video-based program. Mothers are getting guidance about everything from breastfeeding to vaccines to safe sanitation. And residents of rural villages can easily access government services online rather than traveling to distant towns.
As with all of the previous winners of this prestigious award, I'm impressed with the impact of the work as well as the dedication and follow-through of eLNP’s administrators—from the highest-ranking officials overseeing this innovative program to the hundreds of operators who run the Nenasalas themselves. Bridging the digital divide and bringing technology to the people who need it most is no easy task, which is why such vision, commitment, and perseverance is so critical to the success of a program like this.
This year’s award is particularly significant because it is the last one that will be given. This award started 15 years ago and while the world and technology have changed greatly, one thing that never changes is that access to literacy skills and information remain vital to people leading successful, safe, and healthy lives. Each year we highlight an organization doing incredible work—an organization that others can learn from and emulate. I’m thrilled that the e-Library Nenasala Program is this year’s winner because it has so much to teach other nations about what it means to promote digital literacy for all. Their triumph over adversity and imaginative solutions to daunting challenges offer a real inspiration to all of us who care deeply about access to information for the most under-served populations.