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Bridging the Digital Divide: How One Economy Corporation Uses Internet Technology As a Means to End Poverty

 

bridges vol. 13, April 2007 / Feature Article
by Juliet M. Beverly

There was a time, not too long ago, that the only way to job hunt took a lot of footwork and a few newspapers. Today, all it takes is a dial tone and a computer. Visiting Web sites like www.monster.com gives information to thousands of jobs in hundreds of fields. You can apply for jobs online rather than on-site and in person, and you can post your resume and have employers find you. Like the "virtual" job market, many other common processes of everyday life have been moved to the World Wide Web and are - sometimes exclusively - available online. But if you don't have a computer with access to the Internet, these processes aren't common - they're barriers.

comScore Networks, reported that worldwide Internet use has gone up 10 percent in the last year to 747 million users ages 15 and over. Conceivably, everyday 747 million people sign on to check their e-mail, the nearest location for a flu shot, telephone numbers or Web addresses for their nearest schools or institutions of higher learning, and the latest news. However, this 747 million people is barely 10 percent of the world's population.

 

one_economy_logo.png
 
  • Headquarters: Washington, D.C
  • Founded: 2000
 
  • Revenue and Support (2005): $6,221,938 USD
 
  • End of the Year Net Assets (2005): $12,200,535 USD
 
  • Donors and supports include Cisco Systems, Google, Microsoft, AT&T

 

This is what is widely described as the "digital divide" - the gap between those who have access to technology and those who do not. Although there is no set definition for the term "digital divide, there is a commonality that states that the divide is based on those who can reap the benefits from using technology versus those who will not. One Economy Corporation focuses on the benefits of computer technology and information. Instead of basing their work solely on putting computer technology into the hands of those who don't have it, they focus on how people can get the most from that technology to propel themselves economically, making computer innovations the medium to alleviate poverty.


//bring IT home: One Economy Corporation

One Economy Corporation is a US, nonprofit organization that aids low-income households in gaining access to information through an online, multilingual-content, user-friendly Web site called The Beehive. Using a support organization, One Global Economy (founded in 2005), as the international branch of the organization, One Economy has been able to provide information and services to low-income people in the United States, Africa, Canada, and the Middle East.

In January of this year, One Economy co-hosted a diplomatic luncheon with the Office of Science & Technology (OST) at the Embassy of Austria in Washington, DC. Diplomats from 39 different embassies attended to learn about One Economy's efforts in the US and worldwide. Alec Ross, the cofounder and senior vice president of One Economy Corporation, and Moustafa Mourad, president of One Global Economy, made presentations during the luncheon not only with the purpose of educating diplomats about their organization, but also to convey that technology and economy directly correlate. "Although price points [for technology] have been going down, they still remain relatively high," Ross pointed out during his presentation. "People don't understand the importance of technology and the Internet as it relates to upward economic mobility."

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Ross stated that people without technology skills are not, ". . . economically competitive in the 21st century . . ." continuing to say that communication is key in spreading the idea that basic technology skills are highly important. However, Mourad clarified that this is not to say that information technology is the only way to move forward economically, but technology will give advantages and make people "more efficient at whatever it is you do" to generate income.

The goal of One Economy is to guarantee free and efficient access to technology. Using preexisting facilities such as schools, community centers, clinics, Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), and ultimately, homes, One Economy and One Global Economy create launching pads for technological access. By acquiring the access to technology, people will gain the most beneficial outcome of technology - information. "We are first and foremost concerned with poverty alleviation [and the use of] technology and interconnectivity as a means to an end," said Mourad. "We don't care how technology gets there - as long as it gets there."


the_beehive_logo.png
In the U.S. (2005)
Visited over 9.6 million times
235,000 visitors linked to information to create a family budget
315,000 high school students accessed homework help information
425,0000 people accessed information about diabetes

 

The Beehive - providing information from South Dakota to South Africa

The Beehive is the center of One Economy and One Global Economy Corporation. What makes this comb so sweet is that the content on every site is location specific, that is, all Web sites provide information that is culturally relevant and community specific. The site addresses livelihood and income generation, capacity building of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and private sector participation.

One Economy and One Global Economy engage community residents and other stakeholders in participating in the design and content process of the community portal. Needless to say, communication with the community is pivotal to each Beehive. The purpose of One Economy and One Global Economy is not to build centers but restore them. "We establish centers in schools, libraries, and existing community centers - centers that were created with the best of intentions but were underutilized," said Mourad. "We rely on people from the community . . . It is one of the fundamental components. Any issue addressed in any Beehive is from the community." This means engaging NGO participation, facilitating community meetings, and conducting household surveys for the appropriate content to provide on specific Beehives.


moustafa_introduces_mayor__to_beehive_small.jpg
Mourad stands next to Mayor Mlaba of
Durban (at the computer) while introducing
him to the Beehive.

One of the best examples of One Global Economy's Beehive can be seen in its South Durban industrial basin in South Africa. In recent years, the Basin has suffered from recession. This economic decline has led to a loss of many jobs, which led to an even greater amount of poverty in the region. The CIA World Factbook reports that despite South Africa's abundant natural resources and well developed sectors, ". . . growth has not been strong enough to lower South Africa's high unemployment rate, and daunting economic problems remain from the apartheid era - especially poverty and lack of economic empowerment among the disadvantaged groups." Out of the 44,187,637 people in South Africa, the Factbook reported that there were only 5.1 million Internet users in 2005.

One Global Economy, with the support of Cisco Systems, has established a computer "hub" in a local school in South Durban. In an effort involving several different community-based NGOs, One Global Economy has built a local portal to link residents to much needed job information and provide them with information on global best practices to prevent HIV/AIDS. This Beehive provides them with information on education, government services, and entrepreneurship.

Durban's Project Coordinator, Samantha Schwarer, who has been working with One Global Economy since October, 2006, says that putting the center together was a "tough job." "We had the room in the library and a certain level of commitment from volunteers in the area, but at times ... it seemed we would never be able to open. We had problems with leaking roofs and unpainted walls which required wading through a lot of red tape with the City, and finding the funds for repairs," said Schwarer, mentioning that everything that could go wrong seemed to do so.
 

ribbon_cutting_group_shot_small.jpg
Ribbon cutting ceremony for the Durban
site.

Even up until a few weeks before the opening, the center was still facing some problems. However, the center and the Durban Beehive site is up, running, and fully functional, a feat that Schwarer credits to her volunteers and team in Wentworth, Durban. On February 10, 2007, in the Austerville Library in Durban, the One Global Economy Computer Centre officially opened. The opening ceremony was presided over by Rey Ramsey, CEO of One Economy, and Mayor Obded Mlaba of Durban. Even with the stress and responsibilities of the job like updating the Durban site with relevant content to the users, Schwarer says, " I feel that I am doing something extremely worthwhile." On average, 60 to 80 people use the center daily. So far, 500 individual users have signed up to use the Durban Beehive.

The Digital Connectors Program - empower young people to empower the community

Ross, who taught for Teach for America at Booker T. Washington Middle School in Baltimore, Maryland US, before co-founding One Economy, said that his personal experience in the classroom taught him that young people, regardless of their personal circumstances, have a natural affinity for technology. Technology is where Ross said "the role of youth leadership is accepted . . . " Through the One Economy's Digital Connectors program, youth get technology training. Then, these youths provide technology training and support to community residents who have home access to computers and the Internet through One Economy's efforts. In 11 different cities, for 3,000 families, 500 youth performed this community service totaling 10,000 hours of community service. Ross says that One Economy tries ". . . to train youth to be trainers for the broader communities," and to "empower young people to empower the community."

Globalization and the Internet have made the world very connected and also a lot smaller. While technology may be a solution to putting everyone on the same economic playing field, it might serve only as an illusion in the game. "People now have more choices or the perception of having more choices in a context where, perhaps in actuality, inequalities between rich and poor are kind of getting larger. If not addressed," Mourad warns, "that could be a very destructive dynamic."
 

***

 

The author, Juliet M. Beverly, has been a member of the bridges editorial team since January 2007.


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