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The Internet could help reduce poverty


Vulnerability to poverty now a fact of life more than half of all 215 million Indonesians and more than half of all Indonesians are likely to experience an episode of poverty every three years.
These grim statistics seem to belie the fact that over the last three decades, the government of Indonesia has undertaken many initiatives to alleviate poverty through a variety of policies and programs. These have sought to provide basic needs such as; food, education, health services, employment, agricultural assistance, business credit for the poor and infrastructure assistance for urban slums.
Unfortunately, much of the benefits of these endeavors have been reversed as a result of the economic crisis of 1997 along with the social turmoil and natural disasters in recent years. As a consequence, millions of people have fallen back below the poverty threshold.
Poverty alleviation efforts by the government have suffered from limitations that have actually sidelined poor people, such as; an emphasis on macroeconomic growth, overly centralized policies, charitable purposes as
opposed to empowerment, regarding people as objects rather than actors, perceiving poverty only as an economic condition, and unduly generalized assumptions and attempts to solve the problem.
Accordingly, poverty levels in Indonesia have hardly improved since their pre-1997 levels.
Meanwhile, many developing country governments in Asia and all the major development agencies are actively pursuing policies and strategies for using Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) to reduce poverty. Mostly, this involves providing poor people with shared access to computers and the Internet, but it can also mean a more creative and pro-poor use of the more traditional technologies of TV and radio.
The Indonesian government has not yet formulated a coherent set of policies and strategies for using ICT for reducing the urgent problem of poverty. It is burdened by a relatively poor ICT infrastructure.
Many examples of how ICTs can reduce poverty can be observed from neighboring countries. India, for example, the Asian country with the most poor people, is a hotbed of experimentation, with several projects in hundreds of villages affecting tens of thousands of poor people.
In one project, the Karnataka State government in India has computerized 20 million land ownership records belonging to 6.7 million farmers. Each record is available online from 177 public kiosks at an equivalent cost of around Rp 1,700 per record. The records provide valuable proof of land ownership, which farmers need in order to secure credit, and the system is so transparent it has virtually eliminated the corruption of the traditional village accountants.
The E-Chaupal project in central India operates around 5,000 public information kiosks and is a web-based initiative of the ITC corporation that serves Soya growers with information on products and services required in Soya farming. The kiosks assist in the supply of high quality farm inputs as well as the sale of Soya products by the villagers. They also provide useful information on commodity dealerships such as motorcycles and tractors. The
approach to dealing with farmers has revolutionized agricultural commodity marketing in India through the use of ICT.
In the East Malaysian state of Sarawak, on the island Borneo, within walking distance of the Indonesian border, the ethnic minority people of Bario do not yet have a road to the nearest town, and all travel is by air or foot. Yet they now have access to the Internet via a public center with a satellite facility and the two schools in the village have computer laboratories, also with Internet access.
As a piece of research, the project is demonstrating the high value that isolated and remote communities place on improved communications; probably the only means by which a unique culture and lifestyle can hope to survive
into the 21st century.
The Philippine government is operating a pilot poverty reduction project consisting of Multipurpose Community Telecenters in rural villages on Mindanao. The project began in 1999, and is democratizing access to information for health, education, agriculture and rural enterprise development, through the shared use of ICT facilities.
It has partnered with local non-governmental organizations (NGO) who work closely with the communities to understand their information requirements and to mobilize them towards local development activities that are based on improved access to information. The outcome is expected to lead to nationwide implementation involving potentially 44,000 villages.
In northern Thailand, an NGO is operating several ICT projects, including a local TV station, to assist semi-nomadic, non-Thai speaking ethnic minorities living in remote villages who have become impoverished and
disenfranchised. The programs use ICT for e-commerce and eco-tourism, a virtual hill tribe museum, a missing persons database and a Thai citizenship facility.
Indonesia's use of computers and the Internet is very low compared to its neighbors. Also, 42 percent of the already low access to the Internet is from the 4,000 or so Warnet or public internet kiosks, most of which are profit-oriented and serve the urban areas, however, most customers only log on to check email, chat or play games.
Rural access to the Internet, which is where the majority of poor people live, is virtually non-existent, and many islands and isolated districts are struggling to achieve even basic telephony. Despite the size of the country
and its problems of poverty, there are very few examples of the type described above for putting ICT to work for the tens of millions of poor people. Why is this?
For its part, the government has yet to get its act together, both in dealing with the poverty issue and with a national response to ICTs for poverty reduction. Although in the later stages of preparation, the national poverty reduction strategy has yet to place a priority on the use of ICTs. This is a pity, because at the present rate of improvement there is little hope of achieving the levels of poverty reduction targeted under the internationally adopted Millennium Development Goals, which include halving the incidence of poverty by 2015. We have seen that while macroeconomic growth is important, it is not the same thing as poverty reduction. The only hope of accelerating the pace of poverty reduction is to adopt creative measures and modern technology, which means learning from international experience and using ICT.
The Jakarta Post