Volunteer brings PCs to Bedouin community

Sean Osner returned to Egypt from Jordan just weeks ago. He was in a Bedouin community of between 1,500 and 2,000 people in a village called Safawi, close to the country’s border with Iraq.

“It was like Mars,” he said. “That kind of terrain – very barren. Lots of rocks around.”

Osner set up a community centre with 10 Intel Corp. 486 computers and five Pentium IIIs for the local residents – mostly shepherds and goatherds – to share with four non-profit women’s organizations.

At first, it might seem that Bedouins would have no need for the Internet, especially compared with more basic concerns like food and shelter. But the Internet can help local residents get better medical care and education and it may even help bring money into the community.

“One of the things we designed the community centre for was to help the local women find markets in other parts of the world for their products,” Osner said. “That would keep those traditions alive in their community.”

Osner’s trip to Jordan was on behalf of the United Nations Information Technology Services (UNITeS), which received a mandate from UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan this past spring to bridge the digital divide in Third World countries.

Working on another IT-related assignment for United Nations Volunteers (UNV), which coordinates the volunteers for the UNITeS program, Osner (sean@tacc.ednet.net) recently visited the Egyptian village of El Ghar. There were 400 phones for 100,000 people, and those 400 phones shared a single phone line.

At a technology access community centre in the Egyptian city of Zagazig, which has around 1 million inhabitants, 4,000 people were waiting for a chance to use one of four available computer terminals. “There is an overwhelming demand that we can’t possibly fill,” Osner said.

Visitors, many of whom – even the university students – have never touched a computer, learn how to use word processors and e-mail, perform Internet searches and set up e-commerce sites.

One page set up by a local entrepreneur can be found at www.tacc.egnet.net/tacc/rabab. Rabab’s Leather Products is a one-stop shop for made-to-order outerwear.

While Osner’s Jordan assignment was for only two weeks, other missions can last as long as two years, said UNV spokeswoman Nanette Braun.

Volunteers receive travel expenses, insurance and a living stipend that varies country by country but usually amounts to between US$800 and US$1,500 per month. People can apply by visiting the UNV web site at www.unv.org.

Experts say the volunteers could play a key role in helping businesses in developing countries hop on the New Economy bandwagon – not just in setting up the computers but in teaching people to use them.

“The shortage of skilled people is one of the biggest problems developing countries face in joining the digital revolution,” said Bruce McConnell, president of McConnell International LLC, which does technology and management policy consulting in more than 120 countries.

And not only the local economy benefits, said Ernest Wilson, director of the Center for International Development at the University of Maryland in College Park. Markets are expanding fast in developing countries, he said, and that’s one reason companies like Cisco Systems Inc. and Motorola Inc. have been active in overseas education efforts for years.

For example, Cisco Systems Inc. donated US$3.5 million to UNITeS in July for educational programs in more than half of the world’s least-developed countries and said it would deliver the investment through its global Cisco Networking Academy.

“That’s where the markets are going to be,” Wilson said.

So far, 23 UNITeS volunteers have taken assignments in