We've argued many times here that, while computers should not come before clean water and secure homes, access to information and communication technology is critical to the growth of the developing world. Mobile phones and Internet-connected computers can do much to improve the economies of rural and remote communities, as well as help to maintain the social ties often broken by urbanization. This is becoming especially visible in China, where the Internet boom has moved from the gleaming coastal high-rises of Shanghai and Shenzen to millions of inland rural homes and businesses -- and, especially, Internet cafés. Moreover, an effort is now underway to deploy high-speed Internet connections as part of microfinance programs, a project called "Broadband for Barefoot Bankers."
China's Internet user population is now estimated at 100 million, up from 80 million in late 2003, and while precise numbers are hard to come by, observers say that most of this growth came from outside the big cities. A rapidly-rising share of Chinese Internet users get on via broadband, both in the cities and in the countryside. As IEEE Spectrum describes it:
If your picture of a gritty, coal-choked town of 140,000 souls in central China's Henan Province doesn't include high-speed Internet access, look again. More than 40 percent of the population of Yima, a town that is neither rich nor poor by Chinese standards, regularly goes online. Even outlying mud-wall villages have 8 megabit-per-second connections.
That connectivity is transforming the way the good citizens of Yima work, communicate, study, and entertain themselves. Six months after upgrading to a broadband connection and launching a Web site for his pig farm, Liu Zhaiguo—a wily peasant-cum-entrepreneur straight from central casting—was selling a third of his production at premium prices via the Net to buyers in neighboring provinces who did not even know Yima existed before seeing Liu's site.
But Yima and similar regions, while poor and remote by Shanghai standards, are still relatively well-off. But international microfinance NGO PlaNetFinance is looking to bring information and communication tools to the parts of China most in need of support. The "Broadband for Barefoot Bankers" project, an 18 month effort underwritten by the European Commission, kicked off in September of 2004. According to PlaNetFinance China (PFChina), the project will focus on helping small Chinese communities to build up their economies through information and communication technology.
In a 2003 email to the Digital Divide mailing list, PFChina head of mission, Sarah Tsien, spelled out the project's goals:
Our small program aims to bridge the digital divide by teaching people in remote or disadvantaged areas of China how to use the Internet (email, search engines, chat functions) for poverty reduction work. We are also trying to teach them to create content for themselves. It seems to be working although our results are preliminary. Our target students are the staff of "micro"banks that help poor people by distributing tiny microloans and providing advice on enterprise development (fish farms, vegetable vending, bicycle repair). We help the microbankers get on the Net, they help their clients get loans to shrug off the burden of poverty. We believe that the best poverty reduction will happen when decision makers at the village, township, and county level are empowered to make informed decisions about the economic development of their own communities. We are combining grassroots finance with the World Wide Web.
She goes into somewhat more detail in a 2004 speech (the link is to an unedited transcript).
Although 100 million people is a staggeringly large number, it's still less than 10% of the Chinese population. Internet access in China still has a long way to go before it has the same kind of impact on the economy and society now seen in Japan, Europe and the US. But it's clear that China will get to that point very soon -- and projects like Broadband for Barefoot Bankers will help to make sure that the information transformation of the Chinese economy is not limited to the cities along the coast.