Villages’ great leap into the new century
The farmers of Quang Ngai will soon be able to check market prices on their mobile phones - and their young people will be online - thanks to an Australian initiative
WITH little fanfare, this week the families of three remote Vietnamese village communes will make the technological leap from a rural isolation bereft of even a landline connection in some cases, to VoIPenabled mobile phones, WiFi access and 21st century communication broadbandstyle.
Trialling technology developed by one of the world’s leading IT innovators and implemented by a multinational public/ private partnership, 300 mobile phones will be handed out with the intention of helping distribute much needed health and agricultural information to those who previously may have walked for two days to see a doctor only to find that the clinic was empty. Now they can call ahead and receive regular updates.
But like Australia, says Sam Grigg, who came to work on the project last year as part of the Australian government’s Australian Youth Ambassadors for Development Program ( AYAD), for many the phone will be most used simply for talking to friends and family.
‘‘ As it is with most countries in the world, family is an integral part of their being,’’ he explains. ‘‘ One young girl who is living and working in a commune that is not the one she is originally from is excited by the fact that she’ll have a phone that we’ll provide her with that she can call her family on, and the Internet will also be available, so she can chat online with friends. A lot of the young ones know what the technology’s about, they’ve just never been able to afford it before.’’
Mr Grigg, 26, a trained agricultural economist, has been living and working on the WiFi communication project in rural central Quang Ngai Province for more than a year.
His 12- month term as a youth ambassador saw his role with project coordinator URS Corporation, funded by AusAID, but that term is now ending and he will remain as a technical advisor. ‘‘ At the local level, we’ve worked with commune health officers, commune agricultural officers and administrative officials,’’ he says.
‘‘ We’re training these guys in the use of the technology and we hope that these people will start applying what they’ve learnt in assisting others to use the technology as well.’’
In addition to URS and AusAID, the public/ private partnership behind the project includes USAID, the US- based World Resources Institute, Intel and local telephone operator EVN.
John Fargher, director of International Development for URS, who helped set up the project, says that the WiFi project is a good example of how some of the world’s large companies are getting involved in these developing areas.
He adds: ‘‘ It’s where the mineral resources are. It’s where the future markets are and it’s also where there’s a lot of innovative young people.’’
URS has been designing and managing development projects since the early seventies and took part in its first Vietnamese project in 1978. Today, its projects include road improvements in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, land management in the Solomon Islands and combating land degradation in China.
Globally, URS’ international develop- ment operations are now worth roughly $ US250 million ($ A268 million) each year, of which about $ US50 million is funded from Australia.
‘‘ In developing countries we see the aid business as a way of entering into an emerging market,’’ says Mr Fargher. ‘‘ We have a skill set that can add value to those countries. We have good relationships with multinational corporations - we work for all the Fortune 500 companies - so we can build bridges with those people in developing countries.
‘‘ And where you’ve got a fast- growing country, and Vietnam’s a classic, it gives us a foothold so that as the multinational companies come in and set up their businesses and as those countries go to middle income status, we’re there to service their needs.’’
Mr Fargher has just returned from Hanoi, where he has been finalising plans for an AusAID- funded national monitoring and evaluation system to track the more than $ US3.5 billion in development money distributed throughout the country each year.
‘‘ The best thing you can do for longlasting change is to support government or institutional change, to get the regulatory environment right so that people can do things in a sensible way - in public/ private partnerships or as individual enterprises,’’ he says.
Far from Hanoi, in his office in Quang Ngai where he is preparing to hand out the new phones, which will enable the farmers of Quang Ngai to check the market price for their goods, Mr Grigg says the work is satisfying but family is important to him and the time there can be tough.
Mr Fargher says that is one of the challenges of working in the developing world: ‘‘ You go in as a professional and you have a rational set of activities to do but it’s also a very emotional thing. Particularly when you are working with very poor people who are almost always extremely generous.
‘‘ There is this incredible generosity and at the same time this constant reminder that, through an accident of birth, we don’t have to suffer that humility and difficulty.’’