Connecting the dots
Bringing the Internet to the place that needs it most
Among the fifteen thousand people living on Pentecost Island, I am possibly the first to shop online. I sometimes worry that I might also be the last.
Pentecost, one of a dozen main islands in the little South Pacific republic of Vanuatu, is a place that desperately needs the sort of revolution in commerce that computer technology is delivering to the rest of the world. The islanders here are poor - most subsist by growing crops in little gardens and selling their surplus for export - but they are not penniless, and there is an eager (albeit small) market for a range of foreign goods, ranging from essentials such as cooking pots and schoolbooks to frivolous but highly-valued accessories such as CD walkmans and posters of David Beckham.
Obtaining these things on Pentecost is a difficult and haphazard business. There are no towns on the island, and most of the little stores in the villages can afford to stock only a few of the most basic goods. Deliveries to these stores are infrequent, arriving on irregular cargo ships from unreliable suppliers on more developed islands who must in turn import them from overseas. Shortages are common; the pidgin phrase "no got" rolls off shopkeepers' tongues. On some occasions I have been forced to walk many miles on Pentecost - along steep, muddy, winding roads - even to buy simple household items such as eggs or candles.
Even when a product can be tracked down, the cost can be frightening. With goods being carried over long distances in small quantities by a long chain of traders who must each add a substantial mark-up in order to earn a living, the price of even the cheapest, poorest-quality brands is miserably high. Taxation exacerbates the cost. To foreign investors Vanuatu promotes itself as a tax haven - a financial paradise where individuals and companies pay no income tax - but its government must raise revenue somehow. It does so through sales taxes, and by levying steep import duties on foreign goods.
The consequence of all this is that most things that are cheap and plentiful in Western countries are rare and expensive on Pentecost. Many useful items have never reached the island at all.
I became aware of one such item when some of the islanders began admiring the miniature LED keyring torch that I was using to find my way from the school on Pentecost where I work to the village hut where the local men gather after sunset to drink and to discuss the day's events. The villagers had never seen such a tiny yet intense little light before, and asked how much it had cost. When I replied that they could be bought for only a dollar or two, they immediately asked if I could get them some.
On an island where few places have electricity, demand for portable lights is high. Traditionally, people forced to go out after dark would have negotiated the treacherous roads by moonlight, or lit their way with burning coconut fronds. Nowadays simple electric torches can be bought in a few of the local stores, but they are expensive and do not last long. The same is true of the batteries that power them. For the islanders, therefore, LED keyring lights were not merely a novelty toy: they represented a welcome and useful innovation.
Back at the school, which has an electricity generator and a crackly phone line that I could use to hook my laptop up to the Internet, I logged on to eBay and found a batch of the keyring lights on sale, from one of those cheap Asian suppliers who will ship for the same price to any place in the world (even to obscure little dots in the South Pacific). Attempting to browse glitzy twenty-first century web sites over a 1990s-quality connection is a tedious business, but after half an hour of long waits, during which I sat and watched the bits and bytes trickle down the line, I succeeded in placing my order.
When the packet arrived a few weeks later, the villagers were delighted. Soon, a constant stream of people were knocking at my door asking if I could get small torches for them. I logged on to eBay again and ordered new batches, but however many torches I sent for, people wanted more. I had created quite a craze. Young men bought the cool new lights to show off to their friends. Doting parents gave them as gifts to their children. Elderly chiefs bought batches to trade with neighbouring villagers. Little pinpoints of electronic light spread like fireflies across the dark mountainsides of Pentecost.
I began to wonder what other useful things the islanders could get on eBay.
Sadly, I am a schoolteacher and not a shopkeeper, and even the demand for the LED lights was more than I could cope with. Soon I was forced to turn would-be shoppers away. Disappointed, they would resign themselves to the fact that cheap little torches were just another of the little luxuries they would have to do without: one of those things enjoyed by white people in faraway countries that are always beyond the reach of those unlucky enough to have been born in insular corners of the Third World.
"Why can't people just order the torches for themselves?" a friend back home asked.
There is a daunting list of reasons. Many villages on Pentecost do not even have phone lines or electricity generators, let alone computers. The Internet access provided by Vanuatu's sole telecommunications company is too pricey for most locals to afford, as well as being too slow to cope well with web sites designed for a broadband audience. Language also is an issue: there are very few web sites in Bislama, the pidgin dialect that serves as Vanuatu's lingua franca, and probably none in any of the country's hundred native languages. Even if people on Pentecost could order goods for themselves online, it is hard to know how they would pay for them, since virtually none have credit cards or access to modern banking facilities.
Then there is the difficulty of delivery: Vanuatu's postal service is plagued by delays, disruptions, and unreliable postmen. When the local airfield is closed due to waterlogging, or the postman goes on an unscheduled holiday, several weeks can go by without mail.
Finally, there is the problem of know-how. Most islanders have never touched a computer before, and have barely even heard of the Internet, let alone online shopping. It is an appropriate coincidence that eBay means "where?" in the local language.
Yet wouldn't it be great if the islanders could somehow begin to shop online? Not for basic supplies, of course - for practical reasons those will always have to come by ship through networks of traders - but for the little luxury items that even Third World farmers occasionally wish to buy. Through the Internet, the number of useful manufactured items available to the people of Pentecost could be expanded astronomically, from dozens or hundreds to millions.
Of course, it is ludicrous to imagine plugging every thatched hut and tin shack into the world wide web. However, if there was even one person in each community with access to the technology, the entire island could enjoy the benefits. In the larger villages there is often a building - typically the village store - equipped with a telephone line and an electricity generator, which the whole community makes use of. Why not put a computer there too, and hook it up to the Internet?
In rich countries there are mountains of old hardware, quite adequate for surfing the net, which have been scrapped or sold for pennies as technology has raced ahead. Charities occasionally ship these machines to poorer parts of the world, and have been derided for doing so. People question the value of giving such technologies to people who currently struggle to provide their families with even the essentials of life. However, there is more to the Third World than the emaciated figures in Oxfam adverts. In addition to the extremes of poverty - the starving and the homeless - there are vast numbers who are moderately poor but aspire to raise their standard of living and acquire a few of the modern luxuries that they see in foreign movies and magazines. To borrow Oxfam's language, what they need most is tools to help them do so. A computer is one such tool.
One of the many remarkable things about Pentecost Island is the way in which useful little pieces of very modern technology have slotted seamlessly into otherwise-prehistoric lives. It is not uncommon to walk into a smoky thatched hut in the middle of the jungle, with pigs and chickens wandering freely outside, and find the locals seated on palm-leaf mats on the dirt floor watching movies on a portable DVD player.
Unfortunately, electronic equipment does not last long on Pentecost. Heat, humidity, volcanic dust, tiny insects, unreliable power supplies and technologically-naive users are all efficient destroyers of expensive hardware. A donated computer would be useful only for a short while unless it was accompanied by training in how to use the machine and how to fix it when it went wrong.
In some areas of the developing world, large numbers of people are already logging on to the Internet. Cheap cybercafés are flourishing in the dusty towns and grinding megacities of Asia and Latin America. But on the thousands of tiny islands of the South Pacific - isolated little worlds where the need for better communications is arguably greater than anywhere else on Earth - such connectivity has been slow in coming. Out in the Pacific Ocean, which covers a third of the planet, the information superhighway has so far made only the tiniest inroads. The world wide web has yet to live up to its name.
Perhaps introducing the Internet to places like Pentecost Island - places where most villagers do not even have electricity or running water - is a ridiculous dream. Yet the experience of the torches surely demonstrates the benefits that technologies developed in twenty-first century suburbia are capable of bringing even to the most remote and traditional societies.
Although the obstacles faced by those seeking to introduce such technologies are formidable, there are slow signs of progress. Mobile phone transmitters are slowly being installed throughout Vanuatu, and might open up new possibilities for connecting isolated communities to the Internet. Vanuatu's telecom company has begun to offer free Internet access to schools, so that the country's children can be taught how to use the web, although at present a lack of computers prevents most from taking full advantage of the offer. Until a recent donation of computers from an Australian aid agency, the only forms of web that my students ever saw were those spun by the giant spiders that had invaded the empty 'computer room'.
In Western countries, with their cheap and well-stocked malls, supermarkets, and department stores, online shopping was the solution to a problem that never really existed. It is ironic that on islands like Pentecost, where the simple task of shopping presents very genuine problems, the solution is still waiting to arrive.
A version of this article was published by the Vanuatu Daily Post in December 2006.