It Takes the Internet
to Raise a Cambodian Village
Small-Scale Projects Try to Reverse Urbanization
By JOHN MARKOFF
TOKYO -- Overlooked in last month's Group of 8 discussions
about the challenge of a growing "digital divide" between
the information rich and the data deprived was the work of Bernard
Krisher, a 69-year-old former journalist who is trying to bring
the Internet to one of the poorest regions in Asia.
Most recently, Mr. Krisher's nonprofit group, American Assistance
for Cambod.0 2has been toiling to create a permanent Internet
connection to a primary school in the village of Robib, a cluster
of six rural communities in north central Cambodia, more than
a nine-hour drive from Phnom Penh. [On Monday, the group plans
to announce that it has succeeded.]
The Internet link is being provided at no charge by Shin Satellite
in neighboring Thailand. By placing the village directly on the
Internet, Mr. Krisher, an American who worked as an Asia correspondent
for Newsweek for decades, says he hopes to assist in the economic
transformation of a region of Cambodia in which the average per
capita income is about $37 a year.
In addition to providing computer education and Web access
to a village school attended by 400 young students, the Internet
project is supporting the creation of a small woven-silk industry
in the village, which plans to sell silk scarves and table runners
on the Internet. Once production begins, Mr. Krisher said, it
might be possible to generate as much as $2,000 a month in revenue.
"We're trying to show that the Internet can really help
a single village," said Mr. Krisher, whose nonprofit group
is based in Tokyo, where he lives.
"If this is copied elsewhere around the world it might help
eliminate the digital divide."
Though the effort is on a small scale, Nicholas Negroponte, a
Massachusetts Institute of Technology computer scientist who
is also engaged in the effort to aid Cambodian villages, said
the project demonstrated that the global impact of the Internet
could ultimately serve to reverse the disparity between urban
wealth and rural poverty.
"The Net will reverse urbanization," said Mr. Negroponte,
director of the M.I.T. Media Laboratory. "The past 150 years
of development have been one of urbanization. To be rural has
meant to be poor. The Net could bring some of the same opportunities
to the rural world and maybe even turn being rural into being
The e-commerce effort has been created with the help of the Hotel
Okura, a luxury hotel in Tokyo that has agreed to process credit
card purchases made from the village's Web site, whose server
computer is in Phnom Penh (www.villageleap.com). The plan is to ship
the products by express mail through Cambodia's postal service,
with the intention of reaching customers anywhere on the globe
within two weeks.
A number of the Robib villagers are now being trained in the
once traditional weaving skills of the region -- skills that
atrophied under the brutal reign of the dictator Pol Pot in the
1970's and the years of strife afterward, isolating the country
and disrupting traditional trade patterns.
A satellite dish provides a continuous 64,000-bits-a-second connection
to a small group of computers in the village, which are powered
for part of each day by a small solar power system. The hookup
is also being used for a simple experiment in telemedicine that
American Assistance has organized.
A group of doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston
has agreed to answer health-related questions from villagers
via e-mail, as well as offer general guidance on diseases like
malaria and H.I.V.
"This is not what we usually think about when we talk about
telemedicine, where a doctor may transmit an X-ray to a colleague
for a second opinion," Mr. Krisher said.
Part of the challenge of Mr. Krisher's effort lies in helping
recreate the social structure of the village, which was disrupted
by the Khmer Rouge military under Pol Pot.
"It was a nice, traditional Cambodian village," Mr.
Krisher said. "They had some old, dilapidated schools, and
the Khmer Rouge arrested all of the teachers."
Mr. Krisher's commitment to Cambodia grew out of his years as
a foreign correspondent for Newsweek. While many of the magazines'
other reporters were drawn to Vietnam alone, Mr. Krisher traveled
widely in Asia during the 19 and 1970's. He became close with
the Indonesian leadership and through those relationships was
introduced to Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia.
Although the two men initially had a mercurial relationship,
they ultimately became good friends, and Mr. Krisher kept in
touch while the prince was in exile when the Khmer Rouge were
When Mr. Sihanouk returned to Cambodia in 1990, he asked Mr.
Krisher to help the struggling country. In 1994, Mr. Krisher
founded and became publisher of The Cambodia Daily, a small English-language
newspaper in Phnom Penh. He also raised money for and helped
found the Sihanouk Hospital of Hope, in Phnom Pehn, which is
now the nation's largest hospital.
Mr. Krisher set up American Assistance for Cambodia in 1990,
running it with his wife, Akiko, and his daughter, Deborah Krisher-Steele.
The hoirecs to construct 200 rural schools in Cambodian villages,
under a program in which donors contribute $14,000 to build small
school houses, with matching funds from the World Bank.
Mr. Krisher said he thought the Internet added a powerful lever
to his small village-level projects. He said he received three
or four e-mail messages from children at the Robib school each
day, asking questions about his home in Tokyo.
"This is it," Mr. Krisher said. "You have to do
things in a micro way that doesn't require a vast amount of money.
My basic philosfont is to build a small sample and make it work
and then just copy that."