Bangladeshi Organization Receives Award for Using Traditional Boats and River Networks to Deliver Access to Information Technology

subject: Access to Learning Award
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
CLIR
Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha

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Kara Palmer
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
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Alice Bishop
Council on Library and Information Resources
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8.16.05

Bangladeshi Organization Receives Award for Using Traditional Boats and River Networks to Deliver Access to Information Technology

2005 Access to Learning Award recognizes Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha’s
outreach to impoverished, remote communities

OSLO—The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation today presented
its 2005 Access to Learning Award of US $1 million to Shidhulai Swanirvar
Sangstha, a nongovernmental organization in Bangladesh, for its pioneering
approach to bridging the digital divide and its commitment to providing
free public access to computers and the Internet. Through the use of
indigenous boats converted into mobile libraries, schools, and the
Mobile Internet Educational Units on Boats program, Shidhulai Swanirvar
Sangstha provides educational services, access to technology, and computer
training to poor communities in a Northern Bangladesh watershed. The
boats, which anchor at remote villages, rely on generators or solar
energy and mobile phones for Internet access.

“All our program activities are concentrated in and around the rivers
using a familiar vehicle for people to approach technology. Our boat
libraries are crucial to the progress of the villages along the river
basins,” said Abul Hasanat Mohammed Rezwan, executive director of Shidhulai
Swanirvar Sangstha and founder of the boat project.

Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha is dedicated to alleviating poverty among
the poorest people in the Nandakuja-Atrai-Boral Watershed, serving
86,500 families and an area covering over 240 kilometers crossed by
thousands of rivers, tributaries and streams. The Access to Learning
Award will enable the organization to sustain its services and expand
programs to meet an increasing demand.

“Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha is bringing technology to people most
in need,” said Martha Choe, director of the Bill & Melinda Gates
Foundation’s Global Libraries Program. “This organization’s perseverance
and ingenuity is a testament to the value of and demand for public
access computing throughout the world. Its efforts will have long-lasting
impact for generations to come.”

Relying on skilled volunteers, Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha educates
men, women, and children on issues ranging from agricultural practices
and to micro enterprise and literacy. Farmers learn about strategies
for productive and sustainable farming and the ecological hazards of
pesticides. Throughout the year, they are able to connect with educators
via onboard e-mail and check current farm prices online to remain competitive
in the local market. “Seeing a computer, let alone touching it, was
beyond our wildest imagination,” said Abdul Azad, a farmer who travels
an hour to the docked boat library from the remote village of Kalinagar.

Students who would otherwise be unable to attend school during the
monsoon season continue their education through the year using the
libraries’ onboard field staff. With literacy rates in Bangladesh at
only 42 percent, Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha is making a significant
impact on educating young people, especially girls. In fact, over 70
percent of the program’s beneficiaries are women. In a highly competitive
job market coupled with pervasive poverty, student participants are
eager to learn technological skills they hope will translate to a career
later on.

Although Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha manages to keep operational
costs low, the program – which does not receive government funds –
must continually seek outside funding to cover the costs and the increasing
demands for the program. Over the next five years, the program hopes
to double its capacity.

The annual Access to Learning Award, now in its sixth year, recognizes
the innovative efforts of libraries, organizations or library agencies
outside the United States in providing no-cost public access to this
technology. Last year’s award was granted to China Evergreen Rural
Library Service Center and Aarhus Public Libraries in Denmark. Past
recipients include the Smart Cape Access Project of Cape Town, South
Africa (2003), the BibloRed library network of Bogotá, Colombia (2002),
the Proyecto Bibliotecas Guatemala (Probigua) and the Biblioteca del
Congreso de la Nación Argentina (both in 2001) and the Helsinki City
Library of Finland (2000).

The Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) administers
the Access to Learning Award. An international advisory committee of
librarians and information technology experts evaluated the applicants’
efforts to make technology freely accessible to the public, train the
public in using technology, educate staff on technology use and reach
out to underserved communities.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (www.gatesfoundation.org)
works to promote greater equity in four areas: global health, education,
public libraries and support for at-risk families in Washington State
and Oregon. The Seattle-based foundation joins local, national and
international partners to ensure that advances in these areas reach
those who need them most. The foundation is led by Bill Gates’ father,
William H. Gates, Sr., and Patty Stonesifer.

The Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) is an independent,
nonprofit organization that works to expand access to information,
however recorded and preserved, as a public good. In partnership with
other organizations, CLIR helps create services that expand the concept
of “library,” and supports the providers and preservers of information.
Through projects, programs and publications, CLIR works to maintain
and improve access to information for generations to come both in the
United States and around the world.

On the Internet:
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation: www.gatesfoundation.org
Council on Library and Information Resources: www.clir.org