Reducing Poverty with Information and Communication Technologies

Bario Landscape of Bario (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Dr. Roger W. Harris, founder of Roger Harris Associates

The world's number one Sustainable Development Goal (SDGs) adopts the ambitious target of ending poverty in all its forms everywhere. In picking up where the Millennium Development Goals left off, the UN concedes that more than 800 million people still live in extreme poverty and that one in five people in developing regions live on less than $1.25 a day. Other than this simple measure of income, global bodies acknowledge that poverty is also manifested through other factors such as; hunger and malnutrition, limited access to education and other public services, social discrimination and exclusion, and the lack of participation in decision-making. Accordingly, understanding poverty requires the adoption of multi-dimensional perspectives alongside diverse measures for reducing it. This article is about a particular approach to reducing poverty within a specific context. It describes the introduction of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) into a remote and isolated indigenous ethnic minority on the island of Borneo.

The project began in 1998 in the village of Bario in the highlands of northern Sarawak, one of the East-Malaysian states that make up Borneo. At that time, Bario's population of around 1,000 was dwindling, communications with the outside world were rudimentary, mobile phones were unheard of, no-one knew anything of the internet, nobody used a computer, households had to generate their own electricity, agriculture depended on imported labour, there was no road access from the main city of Miri from which there was less than one flight per day by the scheduled 20-seater airplane service. The project, which became known as eBario, introduced computers and the internet in the form of school laboratories and a community telecentre for shared access.

The people in the area are mostly of the Kelabit indigenous ethnic minority, with their own culture and language, both of which are under threat of extinction as members of the group disperse and integrate into the dominant social and economic structure of Malaysia. The premise undertaken by researchers at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS) was to introduce ICTs in order to empower the community to direct change along a pathway of their own choosing rather than one imposed upon them by outsiders. The significance of this becomes apparent by the fact that there are 370 million indigenous people in the world living in about 70 countries; roughly 75% of them living in Asia. The World Bank claims that indigenous people represent around 5% of the world’s population but 15% of the world’s poor population. Among the many social groups that have been historically excluded, they say, indigenous peoples comprise one that offers the greatest challenges to development.

In 2007 the United Nations General Assembly adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). In it, they acknowledge that indigenous peoples have suffered from historic injustices as a result of colonization and dispossession of their lands, territories and resources, and that this has prevented them from exercising their right to development in accordance with their own needs and interests. The UNDRIP also voices the UN’s conviction that control by indigenous peoples over developments affecting them will enable them to promote such development. Despite approval of the UNDRIP, in practice, most of the dominant societies that include indigenous peoples continue to follow assimilationist policies in relation to their development. Such policies often ignore the specific needs of indigenous peoples’ development and rights that are enshrined in the UNDRIP. They assume that what might be good for the whole country will also be good for them, which in practice is often not the case. Orthodox development often damages indigenous livelihoods, destroys their environment, robs their natural resources, belittles their cultures and brings them into new forms of poverty.

Radio Bario
Radio Bario (Image: eBario)

With the intention of countering the external imposition of development, the UNIMAS researchers paid considerable attention to discovering how ICTs could be used to contribute to the development aspirations of the residents. An agenda was formulated that emphasized social communications, education, health care, enterprise development and cultural preservation. In 2010, the community was able to install Radio Bario, Malaysia's first community radio station; a volunteer-operated limited reach broadcaster that sends news in the Kelabit language into the remote homes and longhouses in the Highlands, and which precipitating a change in the Nation's broadcasting policy. By 2016, 10 years after the eBario project was handed over to the community, ex-residents are returning to live in Bario; everyone knows and uses the internet; computers are well-known and mobile phones are near ubiquitous; a solar-farm provides 24-hour electricity; agriculture is mechanized; the Highlands road network has greatly expanded, including access to Miri, from which there are upwards of three daily flights to Bario.

With easier access, community-based eco-tourism tourism, promoted on the internet, is now a major source of incomes; once-scarce goods are now commonplace; a community museum houses a collection of cultural artifacts (including digitized materials); researchers from top universities around the world regularly visit; households boast a wide range of electrical appliances and there are even occasional problems with road traffic. Bario has been elevated to a sub-district, with a new administrative centre. High-level dignitaries frequently visit, including the Prime and Deputy-Prime Ministers. Local functions have become fixed features on Sarawak’s event calendar. The eBario project, which has won multiple international awards, does not claim the credit for all these improvements, but, as one resident described it, "eBario put us on the map" and can therefore claim some influence, direct or indirect, on the positive developments that the community now enjoys.

Furthermore, with sustainable development now firmly premised on environmental protection, we should recall that the territories that indigenous peoples occupy span across 24% of the earth's surface and they manage 80% of the world's biodiversity. These areas suffer the most from the impacts of climate change, yet their indigenous occupants contribute the least to its causes. The architects of the SDGs acknowledge that a strong set of goals will be needed in order to achieve a high-ambition climate agreement, which in turn will be key to achieving the goals. Indigenous knowledge has been shown to be capable of contributing considerably to a better understanding of climate change and its impact on fragile eco-systems as well as providing important insights into the adaptation methods that can mitigate its effects. In order to do so, it is essential that their traditional lifestyles can be maintained but in a way that they allows them to enjoy the benefits of contemporary technologies, just as their compatriots do.

The world is belatedly acknowledging the contribution that the traditional knowledge and wisdom of indigenous peoples can have in sustainably managing the environment and preserving our planet, the only one we have. Empowered with ICTs and the knowledge and wisdom to use them according to their own aspirations, indigenous peoples are able to bring themselves out of poverty and to overcome some of the historical injustices and exclusion from which they have suffered for so long. The eBario project began by bringing Bario to the outside world. By mobilizing the traditional knowledge of the residents and incorporating their world-view into global perspectives of sustainability and development, it is now bringing the outside world to Bario.

About the author

Dr. Roger Harris has been advacing the use of ICT for poverty reduction and rural development. Dr. Harris is the founder of Roger Harris Associates, a consulting firm that provides services to Asian governments and development agencies, including the United Nations, the World Bank, International Telecommunications Union, USAID and the Asian Development Bank.