How was India in 2002? Internet was just about seven years old in the country. Mobile was still struggling to achieve a big penetration; there were just 13 million mobile subscriptions in India. Service providers were facing the challenges of trying to minimise the cost of per call rate to geometrically increase the volume of customers. None of the major Acts like the Right to Information (2005), the Right to Education (2009), the National Food Security Act (2013) and Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (2005) were in place yet. There were also just 82,409 fixed broadband subscriptions in India. Access to digital tools was limited and access to the Internet and the information it held was even low in the one billion-plus country. It was with this understanding and realisation that DEF was registered as a not-for-profit organisation under the Indian Societies Registration Act, 1860, to carry out this mission of empowering people digitally.
New Delhi-based DEF was founded by Osama Manzar and wife Shaifali Chikermane in 2002 out of the deep understanding that marginalised communities living in socio-economic backwardness and information poverty can be empowered to improve their lives on their own, simply by providing them access to information and knowledge on using digital tools. DEF aims to connect unreached and underserved communities of India in an effort to bring them out of digital darkness and equip them with access to information. With the belief ‘Inform, Communicate and Empower,’ DEF finds sustainable digital interventions to overcome information poverty in rural and remote locations of India, and empower communities with digital literacy, digital tools and last mile connectivity.
Today, DEF is one of the world’s leading practitioners in the field of Information & Communication Technology for Development (ICT4D). Its Founder-Director Osama Manzar is globally recognised as an expert in this field and he, or DEF as an organisation, is a member of several national and international government and non-government bodies, expert panels and task forces engaged in promoting a digitally-empowered and information-rich society. Through all its diverse programmes, projects and activities, DEF seeks to help people living in information darkness overcome the information barrier, learn how to use digital tools and the Internet to achieve greater socio-economic equality by uplifting themselves almost on their own using the power of digital devices to access information and knowledge.
It has been more than 15 years since DEF took an oath to work with the poorest of the poor in rural India to fight information poverty. A lot of its beliefs and efforts have turned into national movements. DEF is glad that what it envisioned a decade and a half ago is replicated in the government’s vision — a vindication of the ethos that the organisation holds. “Digital empowerment” is a phrase that is extensively used in the national agenda because the Internet is an empowering tool. It has the power to bring in equality, equity, transparency and accountability. It can create a world where the powerless and the powerful enjoy equal opportunities to be online and equal chances to access information.
As an organisation, we are almost 400-strong people; we have marked our presence in more than 345 locations across 100 districts of 22 Indian states and union territories. What keeps going is the growing belief that people have put in us — be it our beneficiaries or those who fund us. However, there is no denying that we are also a victim of growing too fast in the last couple of years but it’s the spirit of the DEF family that supports us. DEF is not driven by the passion of just one or a handful but the passion, values and ethos that each one of us holds.
Apart from India, DEF now offers help to civil society organisations engaged in the field of ICTD in Africa, South Asia and the Asia Pacific region. Further, to strengthen the global community and become part of the global development fraternity for an empowered world, DEF is affiliated to the following associations, bilateral, multilateral agencies as institutional member:
- Association for Progressive Communication
- Alliance for Affordable Internet
- Internet Society
- Department of Economic & Social Affairs of the UN
- Dynamic coalition with Net Neutrality
- Dynamic coalition on Dynamic Coalition on Community Connectivity
- Global Network Initiative
In the last 15 years, Digital Empowerment Foundation has come a long way but there is still a long way to go because it is yet to achieve what it had set out for.