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SEATTLE (August 18, 2014) – The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation today presented its 2014 Access to Learning Award of $1 million to the e-Library Nenasala Program (eLNP), in recognition of its work to provide free access to computers and the Internet to underserved Sri Lankans living in remote and rural areas. The government of Sri Lanka launched the program as a way to boost digital literacy and encourage economic development throughout the country based on its National Development policy “Mahinda Chinthana”.
The eLNP’s centers, known as Nenasalas (wisdom outlets), have helped Sri Lanka increase its computer usage and IT literacy rate from below 10 percent in 2004 to almost 40 percent today. Centers are located in rural areas to give residents increased access to high-quality equipment, training, and locally tailored information to help them improve their lives. Microsoft, a foundation partner, will make available a donation of software to eLNP as part of its commitment to bring the benefits of relevant and accessible technology to local communities around the world.
The majority of the Nenasalas are located within religious institutions, which have served as community centers and places of learning for centuries. This strategy has helped the government earn the confidence and trust of Sri Lanka’s rural residents, who have had little access to technology to date. Whether housed in a Buddhist temple, Hindu kovil, Muslim mosque, or Christian church, each e-Library Nenasala is free and open to people of all religions and income levels.
“The Sri Lankan government believes that free and easy access to computers and the Internet is essential to helping the most vulnerable people improve their lives through education, entrepreneurship, communication, government services, and more,” said Reshan Dewapura, CEO of ICTA. “And by placing our Nenasalas in religious establishments that sit at the heart of every village, community members are more apt to use them, embrace them, and sustain them over the long run.”
In addition to access, the centers provide training to help people acquire basic computer and Internet skills, and to communicate through email and social media platforms. Local youth often become volunteer computer trainers at the Nenasalas and are given basic training at the beginning of their service as well as refresher courses, online training programs, and peer-to-peer learning opportunities.
“Without a doubt, the e-Library Nenasala Program is making a real and lasting impact on the lives of poor rural residents throughout Sri Lanka,” said Deborah Jacobs, director of the Global Libraries initiative for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, at an event in Lyon, France, where the award was announced. “People are getting locally relevant information and hands-on experience in the subject areas that matter most to them. Community members have a real investment in these centers, which promotes their longevity and sustainability for many years to come.”
Nenasalas also provide extensive learning opportunities for school-age children, including a video-based program for learning English. Women are given specialized content on critical issues facing children and families, including information on nutrition, breast-feeding, safe sanitation, and vaccines. Adults can perform job searches, learn how to create a resume, and access a wide variety of government services, including passport applications, driver’s license renewals, and government exams. Migrant workers who make up a significant portion of the Sri Lankan workforce can communicate via Skype with family members they leave behind.
eLNP is a project of the Information and Communication Technology Agency (ICTA) of Sri Lanka and part of a larger country-wide strategy to “take the dividends of ICT to every village and every citizen.” The program will use its award to upgrade the hardware in the Nenasalas, introduce tablets that can be loaned out to community members, develop educational software for children living in the most remote areas where good teachers are scarce, and create new capacity building programs for center operators.
About the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Guided by the belief that every life has equal value, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation works to help all people lead healthy, productive lives. In developing countries, it focuses on improving people’s health and giving them the chance to lift themselves out of hunger and extreme poverty. In the United States, it seeks to ensure that all people—especially those with the fewest resources—have access to the opportunities they need to succeed in school and life. Based in Seattle, Washington, the foundation is led by CEO Sue Desmond-Hellmann and Co-chair William H. Gates Sr., under the direction of Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett.