Internet project for poor attracts rich

Just putting computers in front of those who need them is not enough. First, they must want them. That is the lesson of Little Intelligent Communities (LINCOS), the world's first pilot information and communication technology project in Costa Rica, which next month will swap the leafy pastures of a rural village, El Rodeo, for the relative bustle of downtown San Marcos.

In the two years since its inception, the LINCOS project, housed in a silver trailer with four Internet-ready computers, a telephone, and other equipment, has experienced the opposite of what its founders - MIT, Microsoft, Alcatel, and the Costa Rican government - expected.

"The goal of the LINCOS project was to help one of the most troubled communities in Costa Rica to overcome the difficulties of ... rural isolation. The challenge was to provide a rural community with services they otherwise couldn't have," recalls former LINCOS director Ivo Calderon. For health problems, LINCOS proposed telemedicine; for education, IT supplements and training; and for employment, jobs at the LINCOS center.

Instead of aiding the poor, however, the project attracted the relatively rich. Its most avid users were some of the 1,500 coffee farmers in the region who traveled to LINCOS to learn how to market their products online. According to LINCOS staff, local residents were not interested in the project or used it only for accessing pornography and vice.

Teresa Aguilar, a maid who lives three blocks from the trailer, said, "I visited it once just out of curiosity. But I never really expected anything from it."

Rosario Godinez, one-time president of the LINCOS Directive Board, explains the problem. "The people of this community think that studying five years of high school is a waste of time. Their children could be producing money instead to contribute to household incomes, or following their parents to work abroad," she says.

LINCOS business director Marvin Cabezas agrees: "LINCOS's main contribution to the region has turned out to be commercialization of products, encouraging people to sell directly outside the country and to take risks."

Evidence of the project's success with businesses is readily apparent. Many of the gaudy, hand-painted roadside signs advertising local coffee farms now include Web addresses. With the assistance of LINCOS, coffee farmers have created Web pages and learned to check the Internet for coffee prices, request budgets for equipment purchases, and register trade marks. Other commercial successes attributable to LINCOS are an online real estate agency and an Internet cafe opened by a young man using skills gained at LINCOS.

The new strategy when the project relocates to San Marcos will be to attract local businesspeople who have money and are interested in e-commerce services. It also will provide commercial Internet-cafe style services for local residents.

For the poor of the region? "E-commerce can generate direct benefits that will stay with a community, both in terms of physical and human resources," Cabezas says.

The future of a revised LINCOS looks brighter. San Marcos is within easier reach of those who want to use the LINCOS project and are willing to pay for it. Responding quickly to market forces, LINCOS is now focusing its services on those who do want to use it, instead of those who should want to.

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