Every country has its own unique challenges, yet it is striking how similar our struggles can be from community to community, country to country, and even continent to continent. The more we recognize those similarities, the better we can apply solutions that worked in one area to others. What’s happening in Romania right now is a prime example.
Paul-Andre Baran is Romania’s new Director of Biblionet, a five-year program to facilitate free access to information for Romanian citizens by fostering the development of a modern public library system in Romania. He was recently interviewed by Neelie Kroes, Vice President of the European Commission, about recent programs that have improved life for families — and women in particular — in rural Romania. Poverty is rampant in these areas, with Internet access — or even computers — simply not being available in many homes. In fact, only 50% of Romania’s population is online. To combat these challenges, local libraries were set up to be the digital hubs of their communities, and the program has been changing lives and altering centuries-old perceptions:
- Farmers previously had to travel to their county capital to apply for subsidies they needed to survive and to operate their farms. A new program now allows them to apply online from a local library. The result? Some 17,000 farmers have saved over 50,000 man-days and 300,000 euros by being able to apply online locally for their subsidies.
- Some two million Romanians have migrated to Italy, Spain and other countries to find work. In many cases these were parents and even both parents of children who were left in the care of grandparents or other family or friends. These families were left with no means of communicating, and the result was a rise in school dropout and suicide rates among the affected children. Biblionet partnered with agencies in Italy and Spain to arrange times when children could go to their local library to Skype with their parents. These times have been rebuilding family ties and even allowing parents to reconnect in meaningful ways, such as doing homework together.
- Local librarians were taught how to help others learn basic skills such as writing and uploading a proper resume, and handling job interviews. The librarians then trained 400 people, and 32 of those trainees then got jobs within three months of the program’s start. It was estimated that, even if they all only received minimum wage, the program generated — in just those first three months — at least eight times as much money as it cost to implement.
- The librarians — who are mostly women — have increasingly become known as gatekeepers and knowledge leaders in their communities, a far cry from the times when information and power were often kept from women. The fact that they now had these elements of power and were even willingly sharing them has been changing the status and respect levels in these communities for not only the librarians, but all women.
As I watched, I kept remembering how a program with some similarities was implemented where I live, on Canada’s east coast in Newfoundland and Labrador. Back in 1995, in the earliest days of the Internet when few homes had access or even computers, community libraries were promoted through Industry Canada‘s Community Access Program as places for people to connect online. That increased access gave people new ways to communicate and improve their lives.
Newfoundland and Labrador has also seem a situation similar to Romania’s, where many parents have had to go looking for work in other places. The ability for those families to stay in touch through Skype, Facebook, and other platforms is helping keep family connections stronger than would ever be possible otherwise.
Perhaps most noteworthy of all, one new program, SmartForceNL, now gives every resident of Newfoundland and Labrador access to:
- Thousands of free online courses on the most important workplace topics to improve their skills and career prospects;
- A CoursePark Lifelong Learning Profile to share with colleagues and employers;
- Career development tips and various online communities for professionals;
- The ability to build their own courses and sell them to the world; and
- For every business and not-for-profit, the ability to have a training solution for their staff at no cost.
SmartForceNL is a partnership between Bluedrop Performance Learning, the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Technology Industries (NATI), and Newfoundland and Labrador’s Department of Advanced Education and Skills.
How about where you live? How are the Internet and social media in particular solving problems and improving lives?