Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Challenges of Facilitating ICT-based Short Courses in Africa: Personal Experiences

In 1993 I facilitated my first short training course at which participants were required to use computers. This was at the Copperbelt University in Kitwe, Zambia and the course was on UNESCO’s Micro CDS/ISIS database software which is used in libraries to create and manage bibliographic records (metadata). Since then, I have facilitated and co-facilitated more than 50 short training courses at which the use of computers has been a major feature. These have been in Botswana, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Ghana, Lesotho, Kenya, Madagascar, Nigeria, Namibia, Rwanda, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe on various subject areas including website design, access to online information resources, web 2.0 and social media, developing institutional repositories, and managing electronic documents.

Over the years I have come to realize that facilitating ICT-based training courses in Africa can sometimes be a daunting task. There are just too many challenges that facilitators face. In my case, the key challenges have been having “wrong participants” on the course, unreliable Internet connectivity, unreliable power supply, and computers in the training room being infected with viruses and worms.

“Wrong Participants”

Each training course has a target audience and requirements or pre-requisites that potential participants have to meet. On several occasions I have had cases where some participants do not meet the basic requirements for the course. This is mainly on courses that are fully funded where participants or their institutions are paying nothing. I once co-facilitated a 2-week regional advanced training course on web design and development in Nairobi, Kenya for participants from Eastern and Southern Africa. The participants on the course were expected to have prior knowledge of web design and development. After all, it was an advanced course. What did we get? Out of about 20 participants, only about six participants had knowledge on web design and management and they were involved in their institutions’ websites. The rest were going to learn for the first time how to design and develop websites. We also had a Secretary from an NGO in Kenya who was asked to participate in the course just because her organization felt that they needed to send someone to the course even though there was no person in the organization who met the requirements. When things got tough for her she confessed that she did not know why she was on the course. Then there were two participants, one from Tanzania and the other from Zambia, who looked like they were coming into contact with computers for the very first time. They both could not use the computer mouse and they could not create or save files to a folder.

Today, in 2010, I still get participants on courses requiring working knowledge of computers and word processing applications who cannot use a mouse, have difficulty in locating letters on the computer keyboard and are afraid to press the ENTER key unless they are told to do so. Most of these participants, as seen in the case of the Secretary from an NGO in Kenya, are recommended by their supervisors or institutions for the course.

What can one do with such participants? Send them back to their institutions/homes? Why provide or endorse false information on the application form that the applicant for the short course possesses the basic requirements for the course when in fact he/she knows nothing?

Internet Connectivity

In October 2006 I co-facilitated a training course at the National University of Lesotho for participants from Lesotho and Swaziland. We were to introduce the participants to online resources and show them how to access and download journal articles in PDF from AGORA, HINARI and OARE portals. We had a lovely training room in the University Library, equipped with about 30 computers and all of them connected to the internet via a wireless network. During the sessions, PowerPoint presentations and group discussions went on very well, but unfortunately we were unable to download copies of journal articles in PDF. The internet connection was extremely slow. We consulted the technical team at the University Computer Centre and we were assured that they problem would be rectified. It was not to be. In fact the 4-day course ended without us downloading a single PDF journal article.

Internet connectivity in Africa, especially in government funded institutions, can be a major challenge when facilitating a course requiring the use of internet facilities. Live demonstration of Internet services are sometimes impossible to conduct. In May 2010, I attended a conference at the University of Botswana Library where a presenter decided that in steady of giving a PowerPoint presentation, he was going to give a live demonstration of the internet-based information service he had developed. Well, the time (20 minutes) allocated to him run out without showing us anything. More time was allocated to him so that he could give his PowerPoint presentation.

In August 2008, at the University of Kinshasa we were forced to move the training venue from a room equipped with about 30 computers to one with about 8 computers because this is where the Internet connection was working. Imagine trying to squeeze 30 participants and a facilitator into a room meant for about 12 people, and without good ventilation. We had a number of participants standing and following the presentations and demonstrations at the entrance to the room while the co- facilitators sat on a bench in the corridor waiting for their turn/sessions. It was a disaster! The Kinshasa incident was in fact the second time I had been involved in a course where we had to shift venues. The first time was in 2006 at the University of Zambia (UNZA). The sad part about the UNZA case was that we moved from a venue that was purposely built for ICT training. It had several training rooms all equipped with computers connected to the local area network and the Internet. Unfortunately, the Internet connection at the supposedly high tech facilities never worked. After two days, we moved to the library/resource of centre of the Commonwealth Youth Programme Africa Centre, located about 1km from the original venue. There, we had access to about 10 computers with functional Internet access.

If universities in Africa cannot afford adequate and reliable internet connectivity, how are lecturers and students keeping up with the ever growing global scientific content which nowadays is accessed mainly through the Internet?

Unreliable Power Supply

Computers run on electricity and it does not matter where the power comes from. It can be from solar energy, the national power grid, a standby generator or a battery. Without power, computers will not work. Maybe one day we will have computers that will internally generate their own power, and this will be good news to most people and organizations in Africa.
Un-reliable power supply is not good news for a training course were computers are being used. In June 2007, at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria, we had a workshop on access to online resources at which the proceedings were on and off just like the power supply. The Internet connection was quite good but the demonstrations and access to online resources was done in bits and pieces. Reliable power supply was unfortunately, in short supply at the University. We would be online for about 20 minutes and then off for about an hour, and then online again and then off. Prior arrangements had been made to use the University's standby generator but we never got to use it. The generator did not work when we needed it to do so. Later arrangements were made to hire a different generator and connect directly to the Library electrical system. This worked, but we had already lost time on the course.

Talking about standby generators, another incident happened at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, Ghana. We had a power failure in the University and the generator could not start because it had no diesel. The procurement process for the diesel, we learnt, was going to take long, and therefore the only way to ensure that we had power to the computer training room was to produce cash for the purchase of diesel. This saved the day. But what could have happened if my colleagues from ITOCA, who where financing the course, did not have any readily available cash for the diesel?

Computer Viruses

Add computer viruses to “wrong participants” on a training course, slow internet connection and unreliable power supply and you are in for a treat. I have facilitated a couple of courses where all these four factors have occurred. It is not a good experience even for a person who has learnt to adapt to unpredictable situations when conducting a training course on the continent.
Most public institutions and universities in Africa are not investing in anti-virus software. They are relying on free and sometimes un-supported anti-virus programs. The result is that most computers in these institutions are heavily infected with all sorts of viruses, worms and Trojans. They have become distribution centres for computer viruses. In this age of USB flash drives, when you organize a training course in such institutions, you are guaranteed that not only will the participants acquire new knowledge and skills but they will also go back to their institutions with excess luggage on their USB flash drives – computer virus and worms.

Not all is that bad!

Admittedly, not all is that bad when facilitating ICT-based courses in Africa. I have had successful training courses on accessing online resources and website design and development in Burkina Faso, Nigeria (at the University of Lagos), Rwanda, Senegal, Tanzania and Zambia (at In-Service Training Trust).

Monday, August 2, 2010

Training Workshops and the Culture of Sitting Allowances in Africa

Participants at a Training Workshop In June 2010, the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA), of the Netherlands, announced a training workshop on Web 2.0 Learning Opportunity to be held in Nairobi, Kenya from 5 to 9 July. During the same month, the Institute for Scientific and Technological Information (INSTI) of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in Ghana also advertised, in two national dailies, three similar workshops to be financed by the CTA. One of the workshops was also to be held from 5 to 9 July in Kumasi, while the remaining two were planned for Accra in August. The workshops were targeted mainly at participants from institutions in the host cities.

Of interest to me were the sections of the advertisements/announcements that indicated that accepted participants would be responsible for all costs related to their subsistence, travel and accommodation, and in the case of the Nairobi workshop, for bringing their own WIFI-enabled laptops. It may look strange that I was interested in this piece of information. Well, I have very good and genuine reasons.

Since 2004, I and colleagues from ITOCA (Information Training and Outreach Centre for Africa) have conducted over 45 national and regional training-of-trainers workshops in over 30 countries in sub-Saharan Africa on access to online information resources in the agriculture and related sciences, medical and health sciences and from 2007 in the environmental sciences as part of the Research4Life initiative. All together, over 1,500 participants - research scientists, library and documentation officers, and policy-decision markers, have taken part in the workshops. The main challenge we face when organizing such workshops in some countries has to do with requests from workshop participants to be paid sitting allowances (money paid to individuals for participating in a meeting or a workshop). In some cases, the requests come from the institutions hosting the workshops. They include sitting allowances for participants in the budget for the workshop which is submitted to ITOCA.

ITOCA does not pay sitting allowances to participants at its workshops. However, like in the case of the CTA workshops announced for Kenya and Ghana, ITOCA takes care of the costs associated with the workshop venue, tea/coffee breaks, lunches, hire of computer equipment, training materials, and the coordination fee which is paid to the institution hosting the workshop and accommodation for upcountry participants. All that is required of the participants is for them to turn up at the training venue and gain valuable knowledge for free. Participants at these workshops are nominated by their institutions which surely should take care of any associated costs.

Considering that most institutions in Africa, especially university libraries and research institutes, cannot afford to subscribe to international scholarly journals, participating in Research4Life workshops where participants are introduced to more than 5000 journal titles offered to qualifying institutions in developing countries at no cost or at very reduced cost should be a very attractive proposition to researchers, information professionals and policy makers in Africa. The wealth of knowledge at hand is several times worth more than some meager sitting allowances that have made some individuals decide not to participate in the workshops.

Why should participants at training workshops held within their city or institution ask to be paid an allowance to take part in the workshop?

On a continent where salaries of public servants are extremely low and in some cases can be as low as less $100.00 per month, training workshops organized by international organizations and NGOs are sometimes being seen as sources of extra income. This is fuelling the request for all sorts of allowances when people are asked to participate in such workshops, even in cases where the workshops are held in one’s own backyard.

Unfortunately, in Africa, a culture of sitting allowances has found its root in most capacity development activities being conducted by international and national NGOs, and is also being used to induce participation in the activities of the NGOs. As stated by the Malawi Financial Mirror:

Everywhere in Africa the donors, especially the NGOs, have nourished the culture of ‘sitting allowance’ paid to induce Africans to attend the endless ‘workshops’ that have become the staple of NGOs. This is supposed to ensure ‘participation’ by the locals.”

This is a sad development in the sense that it is slowly creating a culture of dependence on workshops for extra incomes. The situation is not helped by most governments in Africa which are also paying sitting allowances for participating in meetings, and in some cases even to individuals hosting the meetings in their offices or departments. This is all done to motivate staff to be “present” at the meetings. For some organizations it looks like the number of people participating in a meeting or workshop is more important than the outputs of such events. After all statistics don’t lie but statisticians do.

One aspect of sitting allowances, which is also worrying, is the question of the amount paid to participants. Different organizations and governments departments pay different amounts. The “size of the envelope” is dependent on who is organizing the workshop. International organizations are known to pay more than local organizations and governments departments. This creates its own problems. You get cases in which participants complain if they are paid less than what the other organization pays. Dr Kalua had a nasty experience when at his workshop in Malawi he had planned to pay participants US$7.00, which was equivalent to what the government was paying as lunch allowance, but less than the allowance of up to US$50.00 which some Health Surveillance Assistants were claiming was paid by some NGOs. His workshop did not go as planned. In his words “the whole workshop turned into chaos with the HSA’s threatening to boycott the training and forfeit the highly needed skills if they did not get all their monies

I still have memories of a case we had in December 2005 in Butare, Rwanda when participants from Burundi refused to receive the amount that was given to them as diner allowance. They based their refusal on the fact that the banners announcing the workshop at the venue indicated that WHO, UNEP, FAO, Cornell University and CTA were supporting the workshop, and therefore, in their view, there was a lot of money available. They even went to the extent of asking the local workshop coordinator to produce copies of the budget and other related documentation so that they could verify the amount involved in the workshop. These are participants who had the costs associated with their accommodation, lunch, tea/coffee and transport to Butare taken care of by ITOCA.

The culture of sitting allowances is slowly leading to a situation where genuine efforts of some national and international organizations to help the local populations are being ignored by government officers or counterparts when these organizations refuse to pay any form of allowances to participants at the meetings or workshops. Further attendance at such meeting or events is not always as expected. This fact was also highlighted by Max Ulupot from the Africa Forum for Agricultural Advisory Services (AFAAS) during his presentation at the AFAAS and Global Forum for Rural Advisory Services (GFRAS) side event on 20 July 2010 during the FARA General Assembly held in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. Max indicated that NGOs come to Africa and pay money to farmers for them to attend the meetings. When theses NGO’s leave and others move in to assist the farmers and they are unable to pay meeting allowances to the farmers, the famers do not attend the meetings.

Sitting allowances in most cases motivates staff to participate in training workshops, seminars and meetings solely to supplement their incomes. Dr. Kalua illustrated this phenomenon very well when he indicated that - Health Surveillance assistants (HSA’s) take the invitations to attend the trainings as a privilege and look forward to the financial incentives that are associated with the training. There are instances in which allowances, whether subsistence allowances or sitting allowances, are paid on the last day of the workshop because if paid on the first day, some participants “would have earned their wages” and would leave before the end of the workshop. To most people, acquiring knowledge or skills at workshops are no longer their main motivation for participating in such events. The carrot is the sitting allowance.

In some case, the amount paid as sitting allowance determines who will be recommended for which workshops. Workshops by international organizations that pay more in allowances are reserved for the big bosses. If two different workshops are held at the same time and a potential participant has to make a choice, the amount of sitting allowance to be paid, does at times play a crucial role in deciding which workshop to attend.

About 25 individuals took part in the Kumasi workshop. Some came from as far as Wa, located about 470km from Kumasi. None of them was paid an allowance to be motivated to participate in the workshop. They must have had other reasons for participating the workshop. I am sure that they all wanted to learn about web 2.0 and social media.

Indeed, why pay sitting allowance when it is possible that participants will attend and benefit from the workshop?

See also: "Hunting for Per Diem..."