Harnessing the Power of Knowledge in Africa
Knowledge can be a powerful tool for social transformation when you put it in the hands of disability rights advocates. That’s the premise behind the Global Disability Rights Library (GDRL) project. But the presence of knowledge alone is not enough. People need to know that the off-line eGranary Digital Library containing the GDRL is available for their exploration. People need to learn how to navigate the library. Local experts need to understand how they can create and add their own resources to the eGranary for others to access. And the librarians who are expanding the GDRL need to know what information the disability community, policy makers, and other stakeholders in developing countries require.
For these reasons, two representatives of the GDRL team traveled to Africa from late November through early December. One was me, Andrea Shettle, Program Manager for the Global Disability Rights Library at USICD. The other was Cliff Missen, co-director of the WiderNet Project at the University of Iowa who works closely with USICD to coordinate the GDRL project. The two of us visited Zambia, Tanzania, and Ethiopia. After that, Cliff went on to visit Nigeria alone.
During the two weeks that Cliff and I toured Africa together, we spoke with local media representatives, USAID mission offices, and disabled people’s organizations (DPOs). But most importantly, we visited organizations that have been selected to deploy the GDRL and share access to the library with their local communities. Through this trip, more individuals learned about the new resource available to their community and how to use the GDRL to satisfy their desire for information. In exchange, we learned more about the needs of DPOs in the countries we visited and had the honor of meeting passionate leaders working toward change for people with disabilities. The people we met at the GDRL deployment sites frequently demonstrated a powerful thirst for knowledge and were enthused to be able to begin navigating the resources in the GDRL.
WiderNet Project contributes the underlying eGranary Digital Library technology that makes the GDRL project possible. USICD provides its expertise in disability rights and its strong network of contacts with disabled people’s organizations (DPOs) around the world. This division of labor between our organizations, to an extent, was also reflected in the roles that Cliff and I adopted for most of our trip. Cliff taught IT specialists from GDRL deployment sites how to install, use, and troubleshoot the eGranary. He also trained people in how to use the Community Information Portal, which is a tool inside the eGranary enabling users to create their own content and add it to their organization’s eGranary. This tool allows local experts to share their own expertise with other people who use the same eGranary. During media events, Cliff explained how the eGranary technology is helping bring the disability rights resources that USICD staff, volunteers, and interns collected to locations that have limited or no internet access.
For my part, I guided people at GDRL deployment sites, media events, and other meetings through some of the portals that GDRL librarians developed for the eGranary. These portals consolidate and organize knowledge on disability rights so that GDRL users can find the resources they want more quickly and easily. I spoke with local disability community leaders and other stakeholders about their perceptions on the situation of people with disabilities in their country. During media events, I shared the vision of the GDRL project as a tool for linking local community members with global information resources. I told them that access to knowledge enables people to make their own selection of what ideas and best practices from elsewhere might make sense to import. And it also enables them to identify thematic areas where they can usefully contribute their own expertise to the global body of knowledge.
I also emphasized for many of the people I met that USICD has individual and organizational members who are seeking to build a connection with DPOs abroad. I asked for feedback on ways that organizations based in the United States could be of service to DPOs in their country. The resulting feedback ranged from the broad to the specific, from material goods to abstract concepts for projects they wanted to see implemented.
In my conversations with community leaders, I encountered both tremendous needs and also tremendous ambition. They know what their greatest challenges are and, to varying degrees, they have ideas for how these challenges can be met. Typically, their biggest constraint is not vision, insight, or commitment, but limited access to information, funds, professional expertise, and opportunities for training and other capacity building. For the current GDRL deployment sites, the gift of an eGranary Digital Library is a first step, but continued growth will have to be a collaborative effort. It is USICD’s hope that we can eventually help facilitate connections between DPOs abroad—whether GDRL deployment sites or not—and US-based organizations in a position to collaborate with them.
Some GDRL deployment sites, for example, are anxious to obtain more computer equipment so they can share their new library with more users. One college that is deploying the GDRL in Ethiopia also needs other materials such as lab equipment for students using their science lab. A disability rights advocate in Kitwe, Zambia wants to see local projects that would help people with disabilities learn job skills and receive training that could help them start their own business. In Tanzania, one pair of disability rights advocates told me that women with disabilities face extra challenges in overcoming discrimination and exclusion. Some advocates also highlighted the need for training in leadership skills, and how to make an organization more sustainable, and other capacity building programs for DPOs.
People using the GDRL for the first time also had feedback to share on the library. After Cliff’s visit, one deployment site in Nigeria told me that they appreciated the GDRL resources on women with disabilities but wished there were more. At another deployment site in Zambia, one user was pleased to discover that the GDRL included a series of videos providing a translation of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) into New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL). He noted that some deaf people would feel more comfortable receiving information about the CRPD via sign language rather than reading about it, despite the differences between NZSL and Zambian Sign Language. Many GDRL deployment sites had themselves given permission for WiderNet to include their website and digital brochures in the eGranary. They were excited to see their own familiar digital content on the screen.
Many of the DPOs I met during my trip were strongly interested in establishing relationships with US-based organizations, particularly those that may be in a position to assist them with capacity building activities or material assistance. Some of the GDRL deployment sites are also now considering ways to encourage more local community members to come to their organization to use their new Global Disability Rights Library. There are numerous potential ways in which USICD members could work in collaboration with DPOs abroad. Watch this space for future opportunities to build stronger ties with DPOs around the world.