Despite Disasters and Strife, Technology Education a Topic in Haiti

Technology education sits low on the list of priorities in Haiti, a country where homelessness, hunger and infectious disease are rampant due to a catastrophic recent past. Technology is considered a luxury in this country characterized by low living standards and chronic, widespread unemployment.

Opinions about which efforts should take center stage — and attract critical funding — abound among the world’s philanthropic community as they watch recovery efforts in Haiti and other developing nations unfold. Technology education is easily cast aside in Haiti, where 40 percent unemployment battles for attention with a cholera epidemic that has killed more than 8,000.

This shows how much a country such as Haiti needs help in terms of technology. However, such an opinion is not shared by all, as Deborah M. Todd of Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports. In August, Microsoft founder Bill Gates caught heat for statements that initiatives such as Google’s Project Loon, which deploys Internet access to remote developing nations through weather balloons, are misguided attempts to help nations that have more pressing issues.

“Certainly I’m a huge believer in the digital revolution. And connecting up primary health care centers, connecting up schools, those are good things. But no, those are not, for the really low-income countries, unless you directly say we’re going to do something about malaria,” he said in an August interview with Bloomberg Businessweek.

As for those with the luxury of using wireless connectivity for everything from tracking families in tent cities to diagnosing diseases through video phones, dismissing technology as a first-world necessity dismisses one of the best opportunities that developing nations have for parity with the rest of the world.

“Because of the Internet, our people have more knowledge. They have access to information that allows them to create things and learn things from the other side of the world,” Servius, a resident in remote Haiti said. “Access to information is something that is as necessary and important as water and electricity”

It’s no simple feat to advance technology access and education in Haiti, where a mere 0.2 percent of the population are regular Internet users and intermittent electricity service causes frequent blackouts. A lack of wired infrastructure and available electricity to power wireless antennas compounds the challenges that the nation’s Internet service providers face when trying to extend their reach.

However, technologies such as Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access or WiMAX, which can transmit 3G and 4G wireless broadband service as far as 30 miles, give companies such as Caribbean wireless provider Digicel additional options to connect customers. Digicel, Haiti’s largest wireless provider, has 1.6 million customers with data capable phones powered by WiMAX 38 % of its total subscribers.

In addition, in the nation’s cities, cyber cafes — where users have enough speed to check emails and Facebook, download videos and complete other basic online tasks — can be found on practically every block.