EC-funded regional infrastructure programmes and World Bank national capacity building efforts: a perfect fit in the jigsaw of sustainable NREN development

Interview with Michael Foley, Distance Learning Specialist at the World Bank

Nepal and Sri Lanka are the latest countries to connect to the pan-Asian TEIN3 network, allowing their research and education communities to collaborate with their peers across Asia and the rest of the world. The South Asian network expansion is the result of close collaboration between the EC-funded TEIN3 programme and capacity building efforts conducted by the World Bank across South Asia.
Michael Foley, Distance Learning Specialist at the World Bank tells us more.

In their effort to raise millions of people out of poverty in the developing world, aid agencies recognise that knowledge is the key to development.  What’s the strategy of the World Bank to foster knowledge exchange in poorer countries?

About a quarter of the World Bank’s budget is spent on knowledge related activities, products and services. Its strategy has evolved over the years since its foundation more than sixty years ago and it is going through another review process to reflect the changing capacity needs of countries and the new sources of knowledge, and in response to the emergence of global concerns and the current financial crisis. On the methodology side the new Internet platforms and search tools, and the rapid growth of communications networks are opening up entirely new modes of collaboration and are fundamentally transforming the generation and delivery of knowledge.

Besides its ongoing work in research, through its Development Economics division (DEC), its Advisory and Analytical work (AAA) and the capacity building and knowledge sharing programs of the World Bank Institute (WBI), there is a new emphasis on partnerships with external knowledge institutions, research centres and think tanks. Moving from seeing itself as a knowledge provider itself, the World Bank is using its convening power to be more of a broker in knowledge exchanges between countries, especially between developing countries, in what is called South-South experience exchanges. A multi-donor trust fund, called South-South Experience Exchange Trust Fund (SEETF), has been set up to support such efforts so that practitioners in one developing country can share their real life experiences in overcoming a development challenge to their counterparts in other developing countries.

In Sri Lanka and other South Asian countries, you have run a programme of experience exchange to support institutional development of National Research and Education Networks (NRENs). What is the rationale of the SERENE project and what is key to its success?

SERENE is the acronym for South-South Exchange of Research and Education Network Experience which has been financed by the SEETF that I mentioned. It was a series of activities that applied what is called the “blended learning” approach using to best effect a combined variety of tools such as web based discussions and resources, live multisite videoconferences, and in person study visits and workshops, as a program of the Global Development Learning Network (GDLN), another initiative of the World Bank.

The idea was to give the countries of Afghanistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan, described as the beneficiary countries, an opportunity to learn from the experiences of other countries in Asia, the providers, on how they established and manage their respective National Research and Education Networks (NRENs). The provider countries were Vietnam, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Pakistan with inputs from the NRENs of Ireland (HEAnet) and the US (Internet2), and from experts in Internet2, DANTE and APAN (Asia Pacific Advanced Network).

The aim of the program was that participants, at the end of the program of activities, would prepare policy notes to their respective governments on how they should go about building a sustainable NREN. As it turned out, such was the convening power of the World Bank, the program attracted the interest of very senior figures in the governments of the beneficiary countries, at secretary and ministerial level, as well as the network professionals and academics in those countries. The outcomes of the program were, on the one hand, a conviction by the senior policy makers participating in the study visits that an NREN was essential for the development of their higher education systems, and on the other, a series of policy notes to their respective governments on how to go about establishing such a network. It was a great result in terms of top down validation and bottom up capacity building.

Where do you see the synergies of aid efforts via a regional programme such as the EC-funded TEIN3 and national initiatives of the World Bank?

It is really important that donor agencies and international financial institutions collaborate together in order to maximize each others’ investments as efficiently as possible and to build on each others’ efforts in a coordinated way. It so happens that the focus of European Union (EU) spending in this area is on inter-country and inter-regional links while the World Bank’s strength is its work with national governments, a perfect fit in the jigsaw of network connectivity. On the capacity building side there can be further cooperation in ensuring, through frequent communication between agencies, that the training and advisory needs of our partner countries are addressed in a coordinated and mutually supportive way. In other words, we know what each other is doing and we try to complement and support each others’ programs.

Could this model for multi-agency cooperation be exported to other regions across the world?

This cooperation which we have seen in South Asia can easily be replicated in other regions where the countries are ready, and where the infrastructure is at a level of development where funding can be effectively applied. The model has already worked in the Caribbean region whereby a number of donors, including the World Bank, the European Union, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), the Organization of American States (OAS), the Canadian aid agency CIDA and the Caribbean Development Bank worked together to establish the Caribbean Knowledge and Learning Network (CKLN). From that initiative came the establishment of C@aribNET which is funded by the European Union. 

We would hope that these models can be applied in the case of the other DANTE projects such as AfricaConnect and EUMEDCONNECT.

In Bangladesh, the World Bank is currently implementing a higher education project which involves funding the establishment of BdREN, the country’s NREN-to-be. This is the first World Bank investment of this kind. Do you envisage more developing countries to benefit from such financial aid to build a sustainable NREN as enabler of learning and knowledge exchange?

It is important to remember that World Bank projects come about at the request of governments. Nothing is ever supply driven, so the demand has to come from the countries themselves. That being said, some national governments, and in many cases the academic communities of those same countries, do not know about NRENs and therefore a request for support for the building of an NREN as such may not come directly. There may be requests to fund better Internet access for the universities, or for campus networks, or for computer labs and videoconferencing equipment, or for academic journals subscriptions, or for collaborative research support. These are legitimate requests, but the response could be that a comprehensive way to address these needs is to establish an NREN that can be the agency to provide these services. So a demand for an NREN may not be expressed as such.

As I said, requests for funding must come from governments, so I would say to those who may be reading this, most likely network specialists; your job is to raise the awareness among both your academic leadership and with the government ministry responsible for higher education, of the role and benefit of an NREN. Going further, I would suggest that you begin to assess the scope of what is required to build an NREN in your country and what opportunities exist to begin. Any bureaucrat, be it a World Bank official, a university president, or a government secretary will ask; how much does an NREN cost? This is an impossible question to answer if you do not have data to hand, but it is a legitimate question. It would be good to have done some research as to the scale of what you need and of the potential suppliers of infrastructure and their requirements. Typically, you should know; how many universities and colleges are to be served; how many students and how many faculty are involved; the state of campus networks, the availability and cost of fibre optic networks within the country, the openness of the fibre provider/s to doing deals for long-term lease or purchase of fibre, and some idea of ownership and governance structure of the entity that would be the NREN and the range of services it would provide. You may be able to get financial support to collect this data if a good case has been made already to government about taking the idea forward. But buy-in from government and university leadership is essential to get the idea off the ground. Finally the government must be willing to borrow from the World Bank to fund the project and that needs the agreement of the Ministry of Finance which in most cases has overall responsibility for the country’s total portfolio of loans from the World Bank.

The first South Asian Global Development Learning Network (GDLN) event to be bridged through an MCU in South Asia and connected over the TEIN3 network happened recently. Would you share your experience of this event with us?

This was a historic event for us in the GDLN and REN communities of South Asia. It was the final videoconference in the SERENE series and we had the offer of bridging the conference partly through the new Multipoint Control Unit (MCU) belonging to the Lanka Education and Research Network (LEARN), which incidentally, was part funded as part of a World Bank higher education loan to Sri Lanka. For the last ten years in GDLN international sites were connected through a bridge in the World Bank head office in Washington DC, with in-country sites in Pakistan and India bridged by Higher Education Commission (HEC) and National Informatics Centre (NIC) respectively. This necessitated connecting through the commodity Internet and to save costs for bandwidth we used 256Kpbs connection speeds. Because of TEIN3 we were able for the first time to operate at speeds of 1.5 – 4Mbps. This was not just a cosmetic improvement to the picture and sound. The communication from the high bandwidth sites was significantly more engaging than from those still operating at the lower speeds. It was a great demonstration of the potential of these connections for inter-university collaboration on a regional and global scale.

As pioneer and longstanding champion of the use of communications technologies for access to learning, what is on top of your wish list when it comes to connecting the world through learning and alleviating poverty? How could national and regional data-communications networks, such as TEIN3, contribute to fulfilling this dream?

The TEIN3 link to South Asia is a tremendous boon to higher education and research in the region. It is programs like this that give an impetus to countries to build NRENs of their own and it is very encouraging to see that a relatively small program like SERENE could raise the awareness of decision makers to such an extent that in the coming years we will have, hopefully, NRENs in all South Asian countries. The contribution to knowledge exchange and collaboration that these developments provide, not only for higher education and research in these countries, but also for cooperation across borders in the region on such critical issues as disaster management, climate change, pandemic monitoring etc., is immeasurable.

However, now that we seem to be on the brink of overcoming the digital divide in technical terms our next challenge is to have the data and the knowledge running through the networks. We need applications that are the raison d’être of NRENs:  multi-country collaborative research projects, shared classrooms and joint courses, regular use of remote digital resources, high-tech instrumentation, supercomputing, student and faculty access to digital libraries and databases. We need business models and plans that ensure the sustainability of the networks. And we need engineers, media professionals and managers that have the capacity to operate the networks and applications at optimum performance.

This is my wish list; high value applications, sustainable business plans, and a skilled community of network professionals. Achieving this will give us all an ample opportunity for collaboration in projects and coordination between programs. I am very optimistic that we can achieve this. Our greatest impression from the SERENE project was of the wonderful generosity of spirit that is throughout the REN community, a huge willingness to share experiences and to help the newcomers. The people in VinaREN, UniNET, LEARN and PERN, HEAnet and Internet2 were amazingly supportive of our efforts to bring experience to our colleagues in Afghanistan, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh.