Whilst conducting a bit of casual research on the recent announcements regarding internet.org, and the trend towards promoting – in this case led by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg – an increase in cheap (or free), easily available internet access in the developing world, I came across a story concerning Computer Aid International and their recent work in Liberia.
According to the article, (http://www.computeraid.org/news-detail.asp?ID=254) although young people account for 65% of Liberia’s 3.5 million, research shows that this section of the population ‘…are mostly unskilled and uneducated therefore reducing their chances of employment.’ The article continues, explaining how ‘…those who graduate from high school or university are disadvantaged on the job market or in further studies due to a lack of access, use of or knowledge of information and communication technologies…’.
Now there’s been a degree of scepticism in response to the internet.org initiative, and others like it, some of which is arguably understandable. Some view the scheme as a self-serving project dressed up as global altruism, when the ultimate end game is to extend the reach of Facebook and its partner’s products into new, emerging and yet to emerge markets. Judging by the tone of a white paper published to coincide with the initiative’s launch – Is Connectivity a Human Right? – even Mark Zuckenberg appears to realise that however outwardly well-meaning the initiative is, it will be met with suspicion by many observers. The paper goes some way towards expanding the ideas and motivations behind internet.org, yet at times appears overly simplistic and almost naïve on the fundamental issues and challenges in the developing world:
‘…Today, only 2.7 billion people — a little more than one third of the world’s population — have internet access. Even more surprising, internet adoption is growing by less than 9% each year, which is slow considering how early we are in its development and that it is expected to slow further…’
Is it really that surprising? For the majority of people in the poorest nations of the world, the basic human requirements for survival of having enough food, a safe water supply and proper healthcare are still bound to appear higher up their list of priorities than whether or not they have internet access. Bill Gates was very straight forward on this, when asked in an interview with Business Week (http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2013-08-08/bill-gates-on-his-foundations-health-and-education-campaigns#p1 ) for his opinion on Google’s ideas to provide internet access to less developed nations via a series of balloons with transmitters (Project Loon):
‘…When you’re dying of malaria, I suppose you’ll look up and see that balloon, and I’m not sure how it’ll help you. When a kid gets diarrhoea, no, there’s no website that relieves that. Certainly I’m a huge believer in the digital revolution. And connecting up primary-health-care centers, connecting up schools, those are good things. But no, those are not, for the really low-income countries, unless you directly say we’re going to do something about malaria…’
Whether or not Internet.org, Project Loon or whatever other well-meaning initiatives that come to the fore are successful, it seems that to start with a simple, practical approach towards increasing access to IT in the developing world, as demonstrated by the likes of Computer Aid International, not only achieves immediate tangible benefits (particularly in healthcare) but also goes much further than merely providing a means of connectivity. Computer Aid distribute donated IT equipment to hospitals, universities, schools and not-for-profit organisations in over 100 developing countries. In the project based in Liberia, for example – one of many – they provided 200 refurbished computers to the YMCA Computer Training Centre in Monrovia, providing invaluable IT training so that those students who are lucky enough to get a basic education are then able to move forward with the advantages of having had training in information technology.
Surely this kind of direct approach, tackling a lack of IT resources at a local level (which as well as the more immediate benefits, ultimately promotes digital connectivity) needs to be applauded and encouraged, and one which will inevitably promote the causes of the likes internet.org where it’s needed most, in providing real benefits to the communities involved.
Computer Aid International is a UK-registered ICT for development charity which aims to reduce poverty through practical ICT solutions. For more information visit http://www.computeraid.org