IT central to Kosovo reconstruction

The U.S. Information Agency this week plans to ship dozens of computers, printers and other technology tools to Kosovo, where a small number of Internet centers will form the foundation of a massive reconstruction effort throughout the ravaged province.

Started in May at the height of the air war in Yugoslavia, the Kosovo Internet Assistance Initiative brought USIA together with more than a dozen technology firms in an unprecedented partnership to help refugees at camps around the world locate family members and access news and information [FCW, June 14].

Now that the war has ended and most refugees have returned home, the initiative is entering a new phase by establishing seven Interactive Internet Centers throughout Kosovo. USIA plans to build centers in and around public universities and libraries in the cities of Pristina, Pec, Urosevac, Prizren, Dakovica and

Gnjilane. USIA has pegged the city of Mitrovica for the seventh center, but efforts there have been put on hold until tensions and minor incidents of violence between Serbs and ethnic Albanians can be brought under control, officials said.

The 18-month, $1.5 million effort is being described as a key factor in developing and sustaining democracy and civil society in Kosovo. USIA is studying several information infrastructure development proposals from U.S.-based telecommunications companies that will lay the groundwork for Kosovo's economic and political revitalization, said Jonathan Spalter, USIA's Information Bureau director and chief information officer. Spalter said the Kosovo Internet initiative has been so successful that it plans to undertake similar programs at posts worldwide.

Heading up the main center in Kosovo's capital of Pristina will be 17-year-old Sabile Tmava, one of the few English-speaking Kosovar refugees who during the war helped kick start the Internet program at one of Germany's largest refugee centers. Tmava is the teenager nicknamed Billi profiled by FCW in the June 14 issue.

She has returned to Kosovo and will be working with USIA to help train Pristina's residents in how to use the center's computers and publish grass-roots newsletters, said Nancy Ozeas, chief of staff of USIA's Information Bureau. "We want to make the information centers in Kosovo a library online," Ozeas said.

The high-tech effort also includes shipping books to help replace the country's dilapidated library collection, she said. USIA also plans to hire local staff members to run the Internet centers and eventually plans to hand off the entire operation to grass-roots organizations and institutions. "It's about helping the people to help themselves and making it sustainable," Ozeas said.

"I've been delighted by the sense of corporate responsibility that I've seen," Spalter said. "This partnership is about how you make government work better and cost less and is at the heart of reinventing government." The equipment also will help improve communications among humanitarian aid organizations, he said.

Chai Ling, a former leader of the Tiananmen Square democracy demonstration in China and chief executive officer of Jenzabar.com, an intranet portal service for colleges, called the USIA initiative "a great humanitarian effort" and a critical step toward buttressing freedom and democracy in Kosovo. "The Internet is democracy in action," she said.

Industry partners taking part in the effort by donating equipment include Apple Computer Inc., Cisco Systems Inc., Gateway Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co., International Data Group (the parent company of FCW), Microsoft Corp., Silicon Graphics Inc. and Xerox Corp.

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