The world's poor need the Internet

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The world's poor need the Internet

The world's poor need the Internet

The world's poor need the Internet

Thursday, July 19, 2001


I do not see eye-to-eye with Bill Gates about the potential of the Internet.

I was convinced by an announcement last month about wave heights and weather conditions in the Bay of Bengal over the scratchy public-address loudspeakers in the Indian fishing village of Veerampatinam.

Last October at a Seattle conference, Gates said that to the 1 billion people living on a dollar a day, necessities such as immunizations, primary education and clean water were of higher priority than gaining access to the Internet.

Part of me agreed. I served as a Peace Corps volunteer in a Honduran village in 1982-83 and saw the benefits of access to health care and education.

But part of me disagreed. For two days prior to Gates' presentation, speakers from around the world had described information technology programs benefiting the poorest of the poor. Last month, I traveled to several villages in India to see some of these programs. I have returned to Seattle convinced that the real Internet revolution has only just begun.

Veerampatinam is one of eight villages taking part in a project developed by the M.S. Swaminathan Foundation. Each morning, information on weather and market prices, job opportunities and news is downloaded at a central hub office and forwarded via an Intranet to the eight villages. Weather comes from Information about wave heights in the Bay of Bengal comes off the U.S. Navy's Web site. That information tells fishermen where the best catches are and whether the sea is too dangerous.

The Internet kiosk is located in a building donated by the community and staffed by volunteers. These volunteers post prices for fish and produce at various local markets. The volunteers also write down the day's headlines on a blackboard outside the kiosk.

Virtually all the villagers have been impacted by the daily catch off the Internet. With $120,000 grant funding from the Canadian government soon to run out, the challenge now is to find ways to make the kiosks financially self-sustaining.

A second example is in rural Andhra Pradesh, a state governed by Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu. For the past five years, Naidu has been touting the benefits of the Internet for the 75 million residents of his state.

A program called the Chief Minister's Empowerment of Youth provides subsidies and loans for new businesses launched by young people below the poverty line. Five-member teams have started taxi services, mechanic shops, small grocery stores and now Internet kiosks.

One CMEY kiosk in Kuppam, a town of 20,000 people, has sustained itself for two years thanks to a steady influx of students, teachers and businesspeople who send e-mails and check job opportunities. Fifteen-minute segments on the Net cost about 20 cents. The kiosk gets 15-20 customers a day, every day.

Yet in Gudipalle, a village 10 kilometers away, the CMEY kiosk is lucky to pull in four to five farmers a day. The lead owner of the Gudipalle kiosk is Balakrishna, a 21-year-old who is passionate about helping his community enter the Internet Age.

But Balakrishna needs some help. Despite having taken a one-month training course, he needed the assistance of my World Corps colleague to set up his own e-mail account on Yahoo. Balakrishna slowly surfed the keyboard, hunting and pecking out his first e-mail message. And just as he opened up his first incoming e-mail, the power went out.

In rural areas of India, more populous and prosperous towns such as Kuppam can support one or more kiosks. But what of villages such as Veerampatinam and Gudipalle?

There are five major issues (the five "Cs") determining whether the Internet will reach India's villages and stay. The three most commonly mentioned "Cs" are connectivity, cost and content. Innovations like the wireless technology that uses radio waves, and a Palm Pilot-like device called Simputer are extending reach and reducing the costs of connectivity and hardware. New sites are providing content in Telugu, the language spoken in Andhra Pradesh, and other regional languages. As for the fourth "C"-- current, inexpensive back-up systems and technologies such as the battery-powered Simputer, offer hope.

I believe the key work remains with the fifth "C" -- capacity-building or training. Entrepreneurs such as Balakrishna need comprehensive training and support to translate their vision into value-added services appropriate to the local community. This is the focus of my 3-year-old organization, World Corps, which will train young professionals from all over the world to establish sustainable rural businesses in the Internet and renewable energy fields, starting in India this fall.

These young professionals will acquire skills in small-business management, determine what information community members need and then get that information to them in a timely, inexpensive way.

Medical information? Villagers can try India's first telemedicine site, set up in Andhra Pradesh.

Literacy and distance learning? Try a new initiative of the Andhra government with Unesco and J.P. Morgan Inc. Caste certificates and other government forms? Our trainees can guide villagers through Andhra's extensive e-government site.

Only through consistent high-quality services delivered to local communities will new information technology tools reap dividends for the rural poor.

Development, like most everything else, is a relationship business. The final mile is the crucial one, where the idea becomes a reality in the life of a fisherman in Veerampatinam or a farmer in Gudipalle. With skilled professionals working within the community, there is indeed hope for this new technology to change the world.

Dwight Wilson is executive director of World Corps, an international non-profit organization based in Seattle that provides training to promising young business and community leaders worldwide. The Web site is

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This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; Special Interests - An Electronic Peace Corps; Special Interests - Development



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