THERE’S much talk in development circles these days about how much Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) such as computers, the internet and telephones, are contributing to poverty reduction and achieving the Millennium Development Goals.
World leaders have declared their common vision of the Information Society where “everyone can create, access, utilise and share information and knowledge, enabling individuals, communities and peoples to achieve their full potential in promoting their sustainable development and improving their quality of life”.
To what extent are the residents of Borneo able to enjoy the benefits of this emerging Information Society?
Borneo’s progress towards full and equal participation in the Information Society is unsurprisingly uneven. There are three scenarios;
Kalimantan makes up about one third of Indonesia’s total land mass, but its population of around 9 million people barely makes up 4 per cent of the country’s total. Overall, Indonesia is struggling to connect its population; there are 73 Indonesian internet users per 1,000 people, compared to 435 in Malaysia and 277 in Brunei.
There are only 14 computers for every 1,000 Indonesians, with 197 for every 1,000 Malaysians and 85 for every 1,000 Bruneians. Moreover, of Indonesia’s 70,000 rural villages, over 43,000 still do not have any telephone access.
Government plans to provide a telephone in every Indonesian village have fallen far short of expectations over recent years. So the prospects for an Information Society in Kalimantan remain bleak.
In Malaysia, whilst the Borneo states of Sarawak and Sabah have in some instances appeared at or close to the bottom of national development tables, the prospects for ICT infrastructure look better.
Sabah has only 7.9 internet users per 100 households, not the lowest among Malaysian states, but not far behind the national average of 10.4. Similarly, with 20.7 computers per 100 households, it fairs better than three other Malaysian states, but slightly short of the national average of 24.2.
It is the same for mobile phones. The picture is better for Sarawak, which averages 12.1 internet users per 100 households, 24.5 computers and 96.3 mobile phones, all above the national state averages.
In Brunei, where the annual GDP per capita for its 370,000 population averages US$25,600, for every 1,000 people there are 85 personal computers, 277 internet users and 847 fixed and mobile phones. This compares to 435, 197 and 943 respectively for Malaysia.
So there seem to be better prospects for a budding Information Society in the west and north of Borneo. However, as can be found everywhere, it is always the urban areas that enjoy access to ICTs first, with the rural areas being left behind.
So, as many Borneo residents live in rural, sometimes remote, locations, is it inevitable that they will continue to be excluded from the Information Society, despite the apparent progress in some places? Possibly not.
Started in 1998, the pioneering e-Bario Telecentre project, implemented by Universiti Malaysia Sarawak with funding from the Canadian and Malaysian governments, has demonstrated that remote communities can make good use of ICTs for their own development purposes.
By installing computers, telephones and internet facilities (via satellite) for public use, and then making good use of them, Bario has become an exemplary leader in rural development with ICTs.
The e-Bario project has won multiple international rewards; the implementing team is regularly called upon by international agencies to share its expertise and it has become a model for telecentre projects throughout Malaysia. When e-Bario began, the Government had no plans to install similar facilities anywhere else.
However, it recently announced its intention to establish a telecentre in every Malaysian mukim, all 927 of them, a process that is now under way in East Malaysia. It will be possible to obtain a first hand understanding of the project’s remarkable achievements by visiting the e-Bario Knowledge Fair in December 2007.