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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

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
206-709-3400
Alice Bishop
Council on Library and Information Resources
Phone: +1.202.939.4763

OSLO, Norway -- The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation today presented its 2005 Access to Learning Award of $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 email 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 free 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.

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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.

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