In the dusty suburbs of Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital, paved roads disintegrate into muddy tracks, phones are rare, and battered three-wheeled taxis are the only means of public transportation. Many children never go to school, and even those who make it to class often fail basic literacy tests.
But over the past two years, a nonprofit organization called American Assistance for Cambodia has launched an ambitious program to help the poorest parts of Phnom Penh and rural Cambodia by teaching people there how to use the Internet.
That might seem like a benign idea, but it is a controversial one in a country where the money used for computers could instead be spent on basic necessities. Cambodians are still struggling to rebuild their country after the ravages of Pol Pot's regime left the population physically decimated and emotionally exhausted in 1979. Many families still lack sufficient food and basic medical care. Critics say it may be years before there are enough web sites written in the Cambodian language of Khmer, or enough English-speaking Cambodians, to justify spending scarce resources getting poor Cambodians online.
But Bernard Krisher, a former journalist who masterminded the Internet project and founded American Assistance to fund it, contends that - given a significant amount of instruction - Cambodians can make fruitful use of online courses, self-guided educational programs, and computer-generated assignments. By interacting online with native English speakers, he argues, they can dramatically improve their command of the language of the Web and increase their exposure to the world at large.
Since 1999, the project - backed by donors as diverse as former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology - has set up computers for Cambodians in two locations. One is the Future Light Orphanage, a foster home on the outskirts of Phnom Penh that had to be outfitted with electricity before desktop computers could be installed.
Mr. Krisher cites Future Light as an example of his project's promise: There, orphans as young as eight years old have mastered computer literacy and used their skills to supplement meager classroom offerings.
American Assistance plans to bring some of those orphans to their other computer-project site - the village of Rovieng, nine hours overland from Phnom Penh - to teach villagers there how to use the Internet. The current education system in Rovieng, a place where cattle walk down the main dirt road and most families' intergenerational homes are small thatched huts on stilts, is not much to brag about. Most residents get no further than about the fourth grade.
Krisher, who has taken it upon himself to rename the town "Robib," arguing that the name is easier for Americans to pronounce, claims the Internet project has already had some success in the town.
"When [the Rovieng residents] started, they were afraid to touch [the computer]," confirms Matt Madden, an American who worked for Krisher's organization, teaching English and computer skills to villagers. "By the time I left, they were beginning to express their own creativity in the art program, and were having contests for who could type the Khmer script the fastest."
"This hopefully will become a model for villages all over the world," Krisher says.
But some Cambodians and foreign-aid workers are skeptical about whether Krisher's program will be worth the cost. Since Rovieng has no telephone lines, the villagers must access the Web via $18,000 satellite linkups.
Because Cambodia has so few phone lines - nationwide, there are 0.3 fixed telephones per 100 people - satellites would likely have to be installed in other villages if the Rovieng program is to be expanded. Although donors paid for the project's initial equipment, many aid workers question whether benefactors would continue to fund satellites and visiting instructors for 100 more villages.
Others wonder whether the money used for Internet access might be better spent on clean water, medicine, and other essentials still scarce in the country.
"I'm not sure that very many resources should be spent teaching [rural Cambodians] English and computers," Mr. Madden says. "Everyone there is a farmer, and all of those children will grow up to be farmers - and neither English nor computer technology have anything to do with their development at this point."
Indeed, for those in Rovieng without direct contact with Krisher's program, life remains pretty much the same. Most villagers farm rice paddies and have never heard of the Internet. It remains to be seen how much - and in what way - such a program might change a village of subsistence farmers who ordinarily see few visitors.
Those villagers involved in the Internet program, though, have already made some changes: Even though the average Rovieng resident earns less than $40 per year, some participants are trying to help defray the costs of their expensive computer equipment. In the process, they have demonstrated that Internet access can also bring commercial benefits.
Young women in Rovieng have revived their traditional silk-weaving industry - abandoned in the 1970s, when artisans were among those targeted for execution and torture by Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge army. They now sell scarves and other silk products to international buyers over the Web (at www.villageleap.com). They hope eventually to do their selling and shipping self-sufficiently, without the help of middlemen.
The Cambodian Prime Minister, Hun Sen, acknowledges that his country lags behind many neighboring countries in terms of Internet access and online education; only 5 percent of Cambodians use the Internet, compared with 60 percent of Singaporeans. Mr. Sen recently told reporters that: "The promotion of information technology will help Cambodia reduce poverty."
The United Nations has also gotten involved in several projects in the developing world that use the Internet to boost villagers' level of education. The UN's Economic and Social Council recently announced plans to raise $1 billion for Internet access in poor countries.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor