U.S. Peace Corps Veterans Tell Why the Third World Needs the Net

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U.S. Peace Corps Veterans Tell Why the Third World Needs the Net

U.S. Peace Corps Veterans Tell Why the Third World Needs the Net

U.S. Peace Corps Veterans Tell Why the Third World Needs the Net

By Patrick & Jacqueline Duffy-Sáenz

In rural Uruguay a textbook costs more than a teacher’s monthly earnings. But what if the teachers and children could dial up megabyte after megabyte of free or low-cost information via the Internet? Patrick and Jacqueline Duffy-Sáenz, two educators, don’t have to imagine. While serving in the U.S. Peace Corps from 1995 to 1997, the New York-area couple helped wire up schools in Uruguay. Below they share their story. You can reach them at duffysaenz@hotmail.com.-David H. Rothman

The Internet should go wherever telephones do. If the phone lines don’t reach far enough, then it is time to string up the wires or install cellular gear so that the Net can go there. We have seen the Internet enrich the lives of children in the Third World, and we believe that the Electronic Peace Corps approach would help spread this blessing and use it well.

As volunteers with the existing U.S. Peace Corps and as environmental educators, we lived and worked in Uruguay within the Department of Rivera. We assisted Non-Governmental Organizations, or NGO’s, the local school system, consisting of more than 100 schools, and the Intendencia, which in English means “government office.” Mostly we worked in NGO development, environmental education, and natural resources protection. And we quickly missed the wealth of books and other resources that we had taken for granted in the United States. Having materials shipped to us was not a good way to share knowledge with the people of Uruguay, due to the high costs of sending the packages, which might arrive late or not at all. Books are heavy. And ten pounds by airmail from Chicago to Uruguay costs roughly US$40 and takes anywhere from two weeks to three months. So we had to look for a faster, cheaper, and more encompassing solution, and we found it in the Internet.

Tracking down an Internet provider in our area, back in those pioneer days, required a good two months of pounding the pavement—we searched the phone book and quizzed acquaintances and visited computer stores, libraries, and local offices. Finally we discovered a provider not more than a block off the heart of the downtown area. Other people were as eager to get online as we were. It was amazing to watch the Internet blossom in Uruguay in just the short time we were there. After finally logging on the Net, we began searching for materials in Spanish for the local schools, the environmental NGO, PUEDES (Podemos Unirnos en un Desarrollo Sostenible), and the Intendencia. This proved to be more fruitful than we had ever dared to imagine.

For the local schools, we worked mainly on curriculum development. Since Uruguay already has one of the more developed educational systems in Latin America, we didn’t focus quite so much on teaching the schoolchildren directly. Instead we concentrated on helping the teachers receive the most up-to-date information and relate it to the lessons for the students. The great majority of information we received was through the Internet, which let us search, read, and print what we believed to be the most helpful.

To our astonishment, the teacher was the only person with a textbook in most classrooms. So, for a good part of the day, the students drew diagrams and maps, and they developed artistic abilities but not full comprehension. All the books are imported—a book costs over US$100. Compare this to the monthly salary of an Uruguayan teacher of US$90, and one can only conclude that something must change. The prices of books will not decline in the future unless Uruguay undergoes a revolution in paper-based publishing, a change that is highly unforeseeable. On the other hand, every school has a couple of computers, and most now have Internet access.

But how can teachers use online information in the best, most appropriate way? The Internet is just a vehicle, and a vehicle is useless if it lacks a direction. And so, after having lived, fought, and searched for the most appropriate information for the last two years, we returned from Uruguay with the idea that the world could be a better place if everyone knew how to log on the Internet and use it in a truly practical way. The Internet can do much more than entertain the electronically skilled—it can also provide answers for teachers and children who know how to ask the right questions.

With the incredible resource of the Internet, we were able to compile an environmental resource library available to all the schools and the public. This library came with lesson plans, activities, and endless megabytes of environmental information on such topics as biodiversity, recycling and solid waste management, organic gardening and horticulture, and endangered plant and animal species.

For the Intendencia, which was in need of information and ideas for solid waste management, we were able to connect officials with a substantial list of contacts throughout the world, many of whom eagerly sent plans, pamphlets, books, and other assistance.

The Internet also led us to a whole network of contacts and information for environmental NGO’s. PUEDES was the group with which we worked most closely, showing how the Net could meet many of its needs. For example, we contacted an organization that was able to send us hundreds of packets of a variety of seeds including many different types of vegetables, legumes, and even flowers. We worked with the group to teach organic gardening and nutrition in impoverished neighborhoods on the weekends, and then the people moved up to hands-on experience—growing their own food.

For PUEDES, we also found invaluable information on other Hispanic NGO’s and the projects in which they were involved, and we located sources of potential financial aid from organizations that helped develop local NGO’s. We learned, too, how other Third World countries had coped with such issues as waste management, acid rain, gold cyanide extraction destruction and contamination, and other threats to health and life. Such information was not readily available from Uruguay’s Environmental Protection Agency (DINAMA), where we forwarded many of our discoveries.

Therein lie some of the reasons for this essay. We are now living in the New York area of the United States, but thanks to the Internet, we could still help bring practical knowledge to countries like Uruguay. In fact, in some ways, we could be even more effective since we are closer to major universities and research libraries, from which we could obtain nondigitized information and put the most useful facts on the Net. The Internet is an intellectual resource with no boundaries, a cumulative worldwide think tank; and after having the incredible opportunity to live and travel throughout Latin America, we know that the Net is a step forward and up for all. It will not only link people and places, but also ideas and solutions to common problems.

Needless to say, we were more than thrilled to find David H. Rothman’s articles on the Electronic Peace Corps idea, and we began delving into his research via the Internet. After various e-mail discussions with David, we have concluded that we are of like minds and are in search of a common goal. We believe that a person should have equal access to information and the opportunity to speak out as clearly from the middle of the Amazon rain forest as the President of the United States does from the White House.

Of course, the Internet is not without problems. We found that limited access for many was a large deterrent. Many groups or people could not afford personal computers or fees charged by local Internet Service Providers. Also—although the Net is becoming more multilingual and is already adequate for most needs of Spanish-language users—the majority of information online is still in English. With the help of government and non-governmental organizations, these unnecessary barriers could be significantly lowered.

The Net is the world’s most encompassing library, even if not everybody has directions on how to get there. We want to be a part of the movement to spread knowledge and understanding of the world and each other.

Sincerely, Patrick & Jacqueline Duffy-Sáenz Please feel free to contact us at: duffysaenz@hotmail.com.

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