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Volume 17, No. 3, November 2007


Table of Contents

 

Defying the Odds: A Success Story from the Mountains of Nepal

 

Stephen Ruth

Professor of Public Policy and Director, International Center for Applied Studies in Information Technology[i], George Mason University

ruth@gmu.edu

 

Jiwan Giri

Board Member, Himanchal Education Foundation[ii]

girij@aol.com

 

Introduction  

In this article we present an example of a successful IT-facilitated development project from one of the most challenging locations in the world - Nangi village in Nepal - and suggest that there are five lessons from this small case that can be useful to the entire E-Government community. While the literature, websites and blogs are filled with positive stories of IT deployment in a developmental context, we must sadly note that there is an equally large, but perhaps less heralded body of information about significant failures in E-Government deployment. Richard Heeks recently called attention to the disastrous consequences of health care system implementation in the UK. Gauld and Goldfinch[iii] cite similarly unsuccessful findings in the same kind of system in New Zealand . The New Zealand project was described this way: “The story is one of lost opportunity, political negligence, shifting ideas about health policy and the shape of the health system, and the development of the Byzantine ICT topography.”

Robert Schware of the World Bank, speaking frankly about IT developmental deployment problems, estimated a few years ago that only about 15 percent of E Government projects meet their goals and over a third of them are complete failures. The project we describe is one that fits in that rare 15 percent of success stories mentioned by Mr. Schware, yet it is situated in an area that would seem least likely for high achievement, the mountains of Nepal. The Nangi village experience seems to be a metaphor for what is possible when the five fundamentals of development are met:  

  1. A comprehensive, agreed-upon plan

  2. Enthusiastic participants and favorable publicity

  3. Appropriate IT interventions

  4. Sustained follow-on projects

  5. Skilled leadership by home-grown talent.  

Adequate funding could also be mentioned but the accomplishments at Nangi were attained with modest investment, mostly funds from Himachal Education Foundation in Nebraska, International Center for Applied Studies in Information Technology (ICASIT) in Virginia, the Donald A. Strauss Scholarship Foundation, Poverty Alleviation Fund Nepal and many other donors and volunteers. Recently, International Telecommunication Union has also provided equipment to expand the existing network to ten more villages. Moreover, the project is currently working on replicating the network in three different parts of the country. It is significant that the project leader, Mahabir Pun, was recently selected as the 2007 winner of the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership and honored in a ceremony August 31, 2007 in Manila for his work at Nangi and the surrounding region.  

The Plan for IT Deployment: Gradual, Focused Development  

Nangi[iv] is a mountain village of 800 inhabitants in the mid-hills of western Nepal at 7300 feet elevation, near the Annapurna and Dhaulagiri ranges of the Himalayas . The hike into Nangi takes six to nine hours from the nearest large town, Beni , and includes an ascent through several mountain villages and forests. Nangi has no factories. All of its people are farmers whose tools are wooden plows, iron spades; axes, sickles, chisels and hammers. No machinery or automated tools are available. Ox and yak power, not tractor power, is used to plow the fields. The people are accustomed to carrying large loads on their backs, as they have been doing for centuries. Life in Nangi is very difficult. Yet now Nangi has computers, a robust wireless Internet to nearby villages and the worldwide Internet community and has been the subject of dozens or reports by news services like BBC, ABC News, PC Magazines, and The Sydney Morning Herald and many more[v].  

First requirement: A comprehensive, agreed-upon plan

Almost a decade ago a plan was developed at the village level to take advantage of the Internet through establishing a connection that could assist in improving health care, agriculture, education, thereby improving the economy of the region. The project has required several steps: first, getting electricity, then setting up a high school computer lab and, a few years later, developing a robust Wi-Fi network[vi] connecting four other villages and the Internet hub in Pokhara, a large city about 22 miles away from the nearest relay station. Mahabir Pun and a small team consisting of undergraduates from UCLA and teachers from local Nepali communities were able to set up the network in about three weeks in September 2003. A dozen access points were connected to the dial-up ISP in Pokhara using equipment supplied at cost price by manufacturers. High capacity antennas (Pacific Wireless PMANT24 24-dB-gain directional for 2.4 GHz systems) were required and electricity was supplied by solar panels, wind and water generators. Positioning all the equipment - access points, antennas, power generating equipment, etc.- required traversing vertical distances of over a mile for each installation, since the villages were all at 7000 feet above sea level or higher.  

Over the past eleven years, Pun and the villagers have constructed a secondary school (with a library), a plant nursery, a health clinic and its associated  telemedicine video link to Pokhara, a carpentry facility, paper-making and sewing machine workshops, a camping ground for trekkers (which includes e-mail capability), a fish farm and a yak farm. The computer lab, shown in the pictures below, was a hodgepodge of equipment donated from many sources. There were several old Windows machines, all with RAM of 64 MB or less, two iMacs running OS X, and one Linux machine. When online processing was instituted some of the software used was freeware, saving on expense and complexity. Currently, Mahabir Pun is working with Open Learning Exchange (an NGO) to develop interactive educational contents using open source based on the government’s curriculum for the school students.  

Computer training in Shikha village[vii]

Villagers reading online newspaper in Khibang village[viii]

Telemedicine

The availability of links to outside sources has made it possible for Nangi to have its own telemedicine system. The early cases, in mid 2006, involved serious diarrhea, pre-natal problems and serious injuries. Two local health workers receive guidance from doctors in Pokhara through the telecommunications system and are able to deal with the situation satisfactorily. Mahabir Pun has also been organizing occasional training programs for village health workers with the help of visiting medical professionals and using audiovisual equipment made available through ICASIT[ix].  

Lila checking a patient

Rupa consulting with a doctor using laptop

Agriculture - better yield from yaks

Farmers are also helped by the Wi-Fi linkage. One of the early benefits was the ability to communicate frequently with the yak herders of the nearest yak farm, a grueling two-day journey by treacherous foot paths from Nangi, about the need of supplies, and the need of medicine for the yaks. Farmers were also able to use the Internet to check on spot prices of crops, new agricultural techniques, seeds and other important information through this system. Moreover, village farmers are being able to advertise their farm products for sale in the local market through local e-commerce site created by the project.  

Enthusiastic, committed participants and favorable publicity

The local villagers in Nangi were the biggest supporters of this project, and also its greatest beneficiaries. The support network stretches around the world - from Nepal to the various equipment manufacturers in the United States that supplied the required network gear, to the foundations and individual donors who gave sufficient funds to keep the projects going, to the many volunteers, including doctors from Pennsylvania State University and University of Nebraska, and other sources like George Mason University, Himanchal Education Foundation, and UCLA.  

Appropriate IT interventions

Many developmental projects, even in very poor countries, try to use the very newest and most complex equipment, reasoning that it will help the local project to “leapfrog” ahead. In Nangi the model was very different. Nangi did not have any funding available when it started the wireless project in 2002. Therefore the emphasis was on using the simplest, cheapest, and used equipment and leveraging it to the maximum. When it came time to set up a WiFi connection, the emphasis was on strong, high-capacity, easily maintained equipment, but the deployment strategy included liberal use of very simple approaches, like employing as many existing natural objects for antenna placement as possible, including trees and rocky crags.  

Skilled leadership by home-grown talent

Nangi and the other villages had several skilled teachers, and Mahabir Pun was able to coordinate their efforts effectively, thereby guaranteeing that there would be a continuous transmission of expertise, new ideas, and an increase in qualified people. Every project needs a Mahabir Pun, a person who understands the region but also has the wider vision to integrate technology, political savvy, and a carefully coordinated plan for a successful implementation. All the volunteers from the United States and around the world - doctors, dentists, nurses, college students etc. - were particularly careful not to try to “take over”. Instead, they were able to stimulate the village experts to be more independent in their use of the training and to spread the knowledge extensively.  

Sustained follow-on projects

One of the most interesting aspects of this project was that once the villagers started communicating about livestock, crops, health care and other useful subjects, they found that there was a niche that would generate other economic gains, and give some of a villagers a new way to use their skills. A paper-manufacturing business has come to Nangi[x]. One of the villagers was sent to Kathmandu for training and returned to train a cadre of others. The result is a new way to leverage both the technology and the inherent craftsmanship of these villagers for creating highly saleable paper products for upscale customers in larger cities in Asia . Recently the villagers also started jam making program from plums and juice making program from rhododendron flowers hoping to sell the products in the market. We feel that one of the indices of success for development objects is not simply meeting the goals, as difficult as that can be, but also establishing a sense of progress that opens up many more opportunities. That is what has happened in Nangi.  

Conclusion  

We have suggested that there are five characteristics of the Nangi experience that have made it a regional success and a model for other implementations. Unfortunately, literature indicates that most development projects fail, even if extensive funding is lavished on them. This one succeeded because it was able to concentrate on the crucial elements of good development practice. The carefully crafted plan assured that the aims and means were well aligned. Enthusiastic participants were frequently consulted and their feedback and additional ideas have kept the project on course for almost a decade. Also there was considerable publicity in several major national and international news outlets during the life of the project, assuring broader dissemination of lessons learned. The technology interventions, although taking advantage of the very best available equipment, were aimed at solid, maintainable systems, instead of fancy, state-of-the-art experimental gear. The follow-on projects, including the paper business and others described above, seemed to be a natural outgrowth of good developmental planning. When people are enthusiastic and initial plans are successful, new opportunities do not seem impossible.  

Finally, we acknowledge the importance of home-grown leadership and particularly the contributions of Mahabir Pun. We urge the practitioners as well as students of e-government to take careful note of the Nangi case. We feel it can be extended far more broadly, and the lessons learned are certainly applicable anywhere in the world.


[i] http://www.icasit.org/

[ii] http://www.himanchal.org/

[iii] Gauld, R. & Goldfinch, S. (2006). Dangerous Enthusiasms: E-government, Computer Failure and Information System Development. New Zealand : Otago University Press.

[iv] Source: http://www.himanchal.org/village-economy.html

[v] Visit http://www.nepalwireless.net/newsarticles.php, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/3744075.stm and http://www.smh.com.au/news/World/Himalayan-village-joins-wireless-world/2004/12/26/1103996439623.html for more news, stories and articles about the Nangi Project.

[vi] For a collection of pictures of the wireless network, visit http://www.nepalwireless.net/photos.php.

[vii] Source: http://www.himanchal.org/school-mahabir-pun.html

[viii] Source: http://www.himanchal.org/school-mahabir-pun.html

[ix] Pun describes his plans for telemedicine at http://icasit.org/Nepal_Telemedicine.htm.

[x] For pictures and more details on the paper-making project, visit http://icasit.org/Nepal_Telemedicine.htm.