Monday, October 26, 2009

Building Bridges Across the Digital Divide

The past three months in Guatemala have been fulfilling and eye opening, but not always easy to understand. Hard to comprehend how a family of seven, their wallets empty, their house too small, was so willing to give me a bed and a seat at their kitchen table for three months. Harder to comprehend they have invited me to return at any time, on any notice.

I’ve also found it hard to comprehend how families in the United States, unburdened by the fundamental challenge of survival, seem so frequently broken by smaller problems. The families of Lake Atitlan seem more willing to share their love – not just with each other, but also with strangers like me. And I wonder if their generosity is because, not in spite, of the hardships they face. Unlike families in the United States, they do not share material wealth; thus they do not have many possessions to fight over. Perhaps we have something to learn from the rural villages in Guatemala. Perhaps we need to reprioritize what is important and worth fighting for in our privileged lives.

Never was this clearer to me than one week after I left for El Salvador, when Chema, the oldest son of my host family, contacted me with some tragic news: his father, Sito, had passed away at the age of 42. Sito, a bus driver, died on a trip he makes six days a week, when his bus – essentially a run-down American school bus from the 70s – collided with another one head on.

Chema and his family were devastated. More than that, I sensed a fear for the future. Fear that a family of four children had lost its only income. But five buses and 24 hours later, when I returned to pay my respects, I saw something amazing. I saw hundreds of friends and family flocking to Chema’s home day and night to give what rice and beans they could spare, to offer their prayers and friendship and support for the future. A family with nothing materially appeared somehow to have everything. I’ve seen American families come apart in similar circumstances, fighting over the possessions of the deceased. In San Pedro, I saw family come together when family was needed most.

The sense that there’s a community that’s bigger than each of us put together is something I try to incorporate into my work. Many of you know that after graduation, I chose to forego a job in the private sector and have been donating my time to helping to grow Guatemala’s third-world economy. I successfully created a micro credit program for the Mercado Global artisans and cooperatives of the Lake Atitlan region. Mercado Global now has a program that will provide a financial means for women to purchase the tools to innovate and the raw materials needed to increase production.

This undertaking brought some more harsh realizations. For it was not just about creating a credit facility; in a society that’s never had access to one, its worth needs to be explained. I had to visit each cooperative in the mission to explain the importance of credit and savings. And then I had to leave it in good hands.

The language barrier made that first step very difficult and frustrating for me: my Spanish is pretty good, but there are three different languages other than Spanish that are spoken in the rural communities I was visiting. (Lucky for me, I had a translator.) But beyond language, the “digital divide” – the difference in computer literacy between the developed and the developing worlds – added another layer of complexity.

My final job before leaving was to hire a loan officer to run the program. Finding qualified applicants was a challenge. Under “technical skills,” a section under which many Americans leave off Microsoft Office as too obvious, one applicant listed “calculator.” (This reminded me of a time I made my host family a slideshow on my computer; instead of watching it, they were entranced by the ability to scroll back and forward within the video.) It began to dawn on me that my progress, though laudable, is ultimately limited by the enormous technological gap that still separates the first and third worlds.

I talked about this gap in a recent Brute Labs post. But in my final days in Guatemala, I got closer to understanding one way to address it. It will be impossible to connect the digitally deprived to the digitally endowed if one group lacks that basic fundamental technological resource: the computer.


From this realization, I opened a new chapter in my passport. Along with Sam Baker, a friend and fellow SCU business grad who was having the same experiences and realizations in his work in El Salvador, we’re starting a socially driven, sustainable business that provides low-income communities, NGOs, schools and small businesses with access to high quality, affordable computers.

We have forged a partnership with DPG, a large computer products distributor in El Salvador with over 20 years experience in importation, transportation, distribution to big companies, governments and PC product retailers. DPG will provide us with a strong logistical backbone and the operational support necessary to get off the ground and begin supplying computers. (They have already provided us with the legal support to register our entity under the name “Computod@s” — “computers for everyone.” They will also be supplying us with their warehouse to keep our inventory.) And we’ll be importing the computers from our supplier, Interconnection USA, a non-profit located in Seattle, WA. Interconnection is a Microsoft Authorized Refurbisher that looks to provide a second life to the many computers in the United States that are destined for the landfills.

Working with refurbished computers is good because it’s green and it’s cheap. Extending the life of one desktop computer with a CRT monitor is equivalent to taking one half of a car off the road for a year. And we’ll be offering these computers at a price never before seen in Central America. Operating with a cost-recovery financial budget model, we will be selling brand name Pentium 4 desktops for $150. (Current stores resell comparable PCs for about $300.) Sam and I believe that computers should not be seen as a luxury, and we will be receiving our first shipment of computers very soon to begin working towards this vision.

Last week, I had the opportunity to talk with a delegation of students from Santa Clara on an immersion trip. They asked me if it was difficult to pass up many high paying jobs to come live down here as a volunteer. The short answer is yes. But I’ve seen firsthand that the value of even one volunteer where I am are often overlooked and underestimated. Plus, the ability to volunteer is itself a luxury: for many, it is impossible to survive in the developing world if you are not working for a wage every single day.

I’m lucky to be able to donate my time, and I’m lucky to be able to leave whenever I want to – to take a more lucrative job in a more prosperous country. This experience has taught me to wonder what it might feel like to live down here without that easy escape. But it’s also made me realize that we need to do what we can to make staying put a little easier. My job starts one computer at a time. I challenge you to seek where your job lies.