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NGO's driving Internet growth

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in the late 1990s have come to play a vital role in Slovak society. In addition to organizing civic campaigns to bring out the vote in last September's elections and educating the public on environmental, social and economic issues, NGOs have also been the main engine of Internet growth and IT education in Slovakia.
According to the 1999 Global Report on Slovakia, published by the Bratislava-based Institute for Public Policy (IVO), the largest source of NGO funding in Slovakia in 1998 was the Open Society Foundation (OSF), which provided over 65 million Slovak crowns ($1.5 million) in support of various projects. OSF Director Alena Pániková said that most of the money had gone towards IT and Internet promotion, which has been a focus of her NGO since 1995.


Three of Slovakia's biggest Internet boosters hail from the Open Society Foundation NGO - left to right, Ľubica Kosková of the Open Library Programme, OSF Director Alena Pániková and Internet for Secondary Schools Programme Co-ordinator Katarína Pišútová.
photo: Chris Togneri

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in the late 1990s have come to play a vital role in Slovak society. In addition to organizing civic campaigns to bring out the vote in last September's elections and educating the public on environmental, social and economic issues, NGOs have also been the main engine of Internet growth and IT education in Slovakia.

According to the 1999 Global Report on Slovakia, published by the Bratislava-based Institute for Public Policy (IVO), the largest source of NGO funding in Slovakia in 1998 was the Open Society Foundation (OSF), which provided over 65 million Slovak crowns ($1.5 million) in support of various projects. OSF Director Alena Pániková said that most of the money had gone towards IT and Internet promotion, which has been a focus of her NGO since 1995.

"We need to train Slovaks how to use the Internet," Pániková said. "We have to improve their ability to use what they have because today people must be able to use IT."

Internet professionals say the work of Slovak NGOs has been central to encouraging what little Internet growth Slovakia has seen. However, until commercial firms got behind the net, they said, Slovakia would continue to show poor Internet penetration numbers. "NGO work has been a tremendous help in teaching Internet skills," said Dag Storrosten, managing director of the Norwegian Telenor Internet. "But because teaching in schools is long-term, it doesn't increase national usage as quickly as business and consumer demand."

NGOs an Internet motor

In many western countries, Internet expansion is driven by consumer demand and the response of business to this demand. Storrosten recalled that one year his firm had seen its individual Internet subscriber base double, in response to which, businesses had boosted their Internet advertising and e-commerce activities to capitalize on the surge in interest.

"The driving force behind Internet growth is the push-pull relationship between the individual consumer and business," Storrosten said. "When we doubled our subscribers in one year, businesses simply did not want to be left out."

In central and eastern Europe, however, low home computer and Internet penetration levels among the local populations have held back consumer demand and business interest, leaving Internet development largely to state programmes, according to a study written by Jaroslav Borovský of the Department of Computer Networks at the Slovak Academy of Sciences (SAV).

Borovský added that Slovakia was unique even in central Europe because the former Mečiar government had seen the Internet as 'anti-Slovak.'

"The very people who used the Internet tended to be those with a higher education, who often disagreed with the government," wrote Borovský with co-author and SAV colleague Martin Vystavil. "It was thus unrealistic to expect that development of the Internet would gain adequate state support."

The Internet vacuum left by state and business disinterest in Slovakia has been partially filled by the country's NGOs. The Open Society Fund has launched six Internet projects since 1994, when it created the HealthNet web-site (http://www.healthnet.sk). Pániková said that Health Net had made medical information accessible to the public, had created a medical library and also opened channels of communication between medical professionals.

The HealthNet project was followed by several other Internet-related projects. In 1996, OSF and the Centre for Independent Journalism created the MediaNet web page (http://artur.sk) to help local media outlets gain exposure. Today, the site contains information on 2,691 outlets, including documents, institutions, Internet sites, radio and television stations, and newspapers.

In 1997, OSF began hooking other NGOs up to the Internet, upgrading their PCs, and helping them to create their own web pages. OSF then launched the Centre for Economic Development (CPHR), which helped local governments gain IT know-how. Also that year, The Open Library Programme (OLP) began, under which libraries could apply for funds to cover Internet activation fees, provider fees and sometimes the hardware itself.

OLP's program co-ordinator Ľubica Kosková said that the programme had assisted a total of 15 libraries throughout the country since 1997 and had provided funding and know-how for the opening of two Internet medical centres in Košice and Bratislava.

Focus on education

For all that NGOs have promoted the Internet as a tool of communication, IT education has always been the core of their programme. In 1995, OSF developed a programme designed to give Internet access to secondary and primary schools.

Known as 'Internet for Secondary Schools,' it is one of OSF's largest projects, and has been crucial in introducing young Slovaks to the Internet. An OSF study found that 160 schools in Slovakia had Internet access at the beginning of 1999, 132 of which went on-line with the assistance of the OSF programme.

'Internet for Secondary Schools' has also served to trigger government-assisted projects aimed at providing children with the IT skills they lack. OSF Programme Co-ordinator Katarína Pišútová explained that her NGO had reduced its involvement with secondary and primary schools this year largely because of a new government-funded initiative called Project Infovek, whose goal it is to provide Internet access to every secondary and primary school in the country by the year 2005.

"When Infovek started, we cut back because we don't want to compete against the project," Pišútová said. "But we built a lot of personal contacts and were able to help Infovek organisers get started. I acted as an advisor to Infovek, and I still help out today."

Beáta Brestenská, the director of Infovek's education division, agreed that the OSF's assistance had been invaluable. "Their help has been very important," Brestenská said. "For example, they help prepare teachers to use the Internet as an educational tool - just last weekend we held a seminar in Zvolen with the OSF to prepare chemistry teachers to use the Internet."

Pániková said that the OSF's interest in promoting the Internet arose from their belief that an NGO should have a focused area of involvement. The importance that the Internet holds for future generations of Slovaks, she said, inspired the OSF to create its IT programs.

"One of the biggest problems for NGO's is that we want to solve everything," she said. "But you can't spread your efforts everywhere. We had to identify the most important area and then focus on it."

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