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Report from the IT and Empowerment conference, India

Freeware, shareware will play key role in bringing Indian non-profit

organizations online

Can the Internet help empower people - or does it actually reinforce

existing inequities in society? Can the non-profit, academic, government

and private sectors together address, analyze and assess the

socio-economic consequences of IT diffusion in urban and rural societies?

Close to a hundred delegates debated these issues in Bangalore recently at

the two-day conference provocatively titled "IT and Empowerment: The

Greater the Access, The More the Divide?"

Hosted by Indian non-governmental organizations Madhyam, Voices, South

Asia Media Association, and the Delhi office of the German NGO Friedrich

Eberhardt Stiftung, the event promises to become an annual affair to

broaden the scope of dialogue and action on the larger context of IT

issues.

Publishing of conference proceedings and online discussion will be

coordinated via a group of Web sites including Indian Webzine INOMY.

Earlier conferences in Bangalore - such as BangaloreIT.com - have also

addressed similar issues, and in 1998 the Bangalore Declaration on IT in

Developing Nations was passed, drawing attention to the opportunities and

challenges of the Internet economy.

Plans to bridge the digital divide must address not just basic

connectivity issues, but also local content, affordable infrastructure,

online/offline discussion fora, sustainable business models, user-friendly

interfaces, multi-channel media synergies, local skillsets, and

multi-sector cooperation.

For instance, the

Center for Education and Documentation in Mumbai and

Bangalore assists NGOs not just via Internet access facilities but also

workshops in Intranet management and the use of freeware and shareware

like Linux.

"The Internet and Intranet are useful for furthering documentation and

information-linking activities as well as quick communication and

coordination among NGOs," said Shubha Chacko, an activist at CED.

"Our Indialink initiative helped link NGOs online and coordinate activism

around environmental, gender and nuclear energy issues," she said.

Coordination of conferences via the Net has helped develop less of a local