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Bridging the digital divide

Mongolia — an isolated country sandwiched between Siberia and China — has become a pioneer in using the Internet as a tool for development, through a lasting partnership with the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) that continues today.


Mongolia — an isolated country sandwiched between Siberia and China — has become a pioneer in using the Internet as a tool for development, through a lasting partnership with the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) that continues today. Since the demise of the Soviet Union, Mongolia has made significant progress in democratic restructuring and creating a private-sector-led open economy. This is a country where travel overland can be difficult, at times impossible. The Internet is playing a crucial role in bringing much-needed services such as education and health care to remote areas.


One of the digital pioneers working to extend the reach and applications of the Internet is Batpurev Batchuluun, CEO of InfoCon, a company devoted to promoting the use of information and communication technologies for development. Based in Ulaanbaatar, Batchuluun has worked with IDRC on a number of Internet applications. “Mongolia is a big country,” Batchuluun says. “Creating an information society is challenging.” Challenging it may be, but the benefits are evident. Batchuluun and his colleague Amarsaikhan Dashtseren have worked to provide online training for rural doctors. Batchuluun also helped the Health Sciences University of Mongolia to develop the “Doctor System.” Using this Web-based diagnostic tool, rural physicians can send x-rays, ultrasounds, and other medical tests to urban centres where health professionals review them and advise on diagnosis and treatment.


IDRC helped introduce the country’s first Internet connections and Web development services in 1996. This early support contributed to the development of today’s vibrant online environment for business, government, educators, and non-profit groups. In collaboration with the Soros Foundation and Mongolia’s English for Special Purposes Institute, Batchuluun and Dashtseren also work with teachers, educational planners, and ICT personnel to integrate Web-based distance education in the country’s educational system. In recognition of its ongoing support, IDRC was awarded the country’s highest medal of honour, the Friendship Medal of Mongolia, in 2004. IDRC has since contributed to the government’s ICT policy through the Mongolian Information Development Association (MIDAS).


Mongolia is one of 11 countries participating in the Pan Asia Networking Distance and Open Resource Access program, an IDRC initiative. The first programming the research team undertook was in Mongolia in the mid-1990s to support the building of basic ICT infrastructure and capacity. In 2000, the Government of Mongolia produced a national vision for ICT development to 2010. A national strategy and action plan followed in 2003. MIDAS approached IDRC to help build such capacity. This led to the creation of a national strategy and action plan to use information and communication technologies as tools for human and economic development.

Another positive development was the establishment by the government of the ICT Agency (ICTA). Under the auspices of the prime minister of Mongolia, this agency has taken a leadership role in promoting and developing the technologies in Mongolia. Great strides have been made, and are continuing to be made, says Batchuluun. “The Internet has really helped people broaden their thinking and their activities. There is still work to do with e-governance, with learning services, and with business. For example, people in the countryside need to be able to easily find the market prices for their cattle or wool or cashmere.”

Other projects supported by IDRC include:


Kenya’s small-scale farmers have a new tool to help them break out of the cycle of poverty and declining productivity — the cellphone. Although they account for 70% of Kenya’s agricultural production, families farming on plots smaller than one acre are among the country’s poorest. Exploited by predatory intermediaries they all too often sell their produce for far less than its true market value.

DrumNet, an ambitious IDRC-supported project, is improving farmers’ livelihoods by increasing price and productivity, allowing farmers to sell directly to markets and consumers, eliminating intermediaries, and ultimately making the country’s agriculture sector more efficient. DrumNet offers an essential tool to farmers — information. They can find out which crops are in greatest demand, the rules and regulations of the lucrative European market, and the daily fair market price. And that is just the beginning.

Using GSM-enabled (Global System for Mobile Communications) cellphone technology, DrumNet’s integrated set of services also include credit linked to agricultural extension and marketing. “The drum was used to pass information in Africa,” says Edith Adera, a senior program specialist with IDRC in Kenya. “We are now moving from the African drum to the latest technology.” Participating farmers can access DrumNet by cellphone — researchers determined that a computer-based network would be too expensive, too slow and unreliable. In addition, DrumNet kiosks managed by “info brokers” collect and share information and arrange buying and selling deals, all at minimal cost to participating farmers.


Developed in the 1970s by IDRC, a pioneering software tool is still helping organizations in over 60 countries store, manage, and retrieve information for development today. Long before personal computers and the Internet, the huge libraries and databases of UN agencies were accessible in digital form using a system called ISIS. Because ISIS ran only on million-dollar mainframe computers, the information was effectively beyond the reach of most developing countries.

Unique Environment

Then “minicomputers” came on the market — machines powerful enough to handle ISIS, at about a third of the cost of mainframes. An IDRC team of computer scientists developed an innovative new minicomputer-based system that could manage data directly transferred from ISIS — thus, its name: MINISIS. “IDRC was a unique environment for development in that they had a program whose goal was to provide information for development,” says Faye Daneliuk, who headed the development team. “The ideas that we incorporated continue to be instrumental in providing this type of support on any type of computer system.”

Even Greater Impacts

In 1999 IDRC sold MINISIS to a new Canadian company, MINISIS Inc. It was a condition of sale that MINISIS “would continue its innovative work and would maintain its excellent reputation both in Canada and abroad.” The new company has been as good as its word. “We have shown that by giving away more than $3 million in free and discounted solutions worldwide over the past few years,” says the company’s CEO, Christopher Burcsik. “MINISIS technology has made impacts even greater than were seen in the past.”


Snakebites, food poisoning, exposure to toxic chemicals: all are potentially fatal if the correct antidote isn't identified and applied — fast. Since 1988, INTOX, a computer-based program involving a global network of poison centres, has been providing those life-saving capabilities in minutes. “We put together a huge data bank based on reliable information from the World Health Organization (WHO) and other sources, and made all this available to poison centres in different parts of the world,” says Dr P.K. Abeytunga, vice-president of the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS).

With support from IDRC, and in cooperation with WHO, the CCOHS helped to develop the “INTOX Package” that brings together the expertise of some 100 toxicology experts from 60 countries. The harmonized data management system has made it possible for poison centres around the world to share information and experiences online. “One of the lasting benefits of the system,” says Abeytunga, “is that it is usable by a wide range of poison centres, including very small centres in developing countries” — centres such as the one established in Cairo, Egypt, in 1990 with support from IDRC. That centre has been credited with helping to prevent a repeat outbreak of deadly botulism in 1992, and for training more than 1,000 physicians in various parts of Egypt to recognize, treat, and manage common causes of poisoning.

Isabelle Bourgeault-Tassé | Research asia research news
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