Start from zero

9th February 1996 at 00:00
The information technology revolution bypassed Cambodia. Reva Klein met two women who are helping the people catch up.

As we head towards the 21st century, there are a few certainties for which we can prepare ourselves. One is that employment patterns are changing. Another, tied in with that, is that new technology is an integral tool for just about everybody in the changing labour market, whether directly or indirectly.

The way these realities are addressed in this country is variable, although there is a fundamental understanding that training and resources are essential and that we need to do something about it. But what do you do in a country in which electricity supplies are erratic, where the infrastructure is being redeveloped after having been flattened by years of war and repression, and where poverty is endemic.

"Cambodia," says Jacquie Disney, "was part of this century that was taken back to the Year Zero and now is starting all over again, taking the best and the worst of the contemporary world." Jacquie is one half of LIFT, Learning for Life in Technology.

Together with Dr Maggie Holgate, Jacquie is making resources and training available to the technologically underdeveloped. As Maggie puts it, "Technology is a potentially great equaliser. LIFT is a technology organisation with a social vision. This is about social justice."

There are two strands to LIFT. The domestic side of the organisation makes adult education courses in IT responsive to people's needs, works on accessibility of IT resources and puts pressure on hardware and software manufacturers and retailers to communicate better with their consumers. It will also function as an umbrella group for other IT-related organisations, including PIN - Parents Information Network - of which it is an offshoot.

The international arm of LIFT will be driven by similar concerns and philosophies, but is being targeted on the needs of the developing world, starting with south east Asia. Jacquie recently visited Cambodia for six weeks to establish contacts, listen to what people and organisations want from LIFT and start the development work.

The first step is the setting up of a community centre in the capital, Phnom Penh, to which anybody can come to use computers. But the target group will be people who are interested in technology as a way of helping them in their design and art work.

"The design angle is a route in," explains Maggie. "Through this route, we will be enabling and empowering women who traditionally work in these areas. We will show them how their design skills can be enhanced by technology. Rather than focusing on the technology, which is the way computers have been introduced in the West, we will focus on their interests.

"It's important to present the technology not as the focus but as a way of bringing people together to help them in their creative work. And by equipping them with technological literacy, we can give them access to a power base in their country that women here do not hold."

LIFT is interested in Cambodia for a number of reasons, not least because it is a country with a clean IT slate. In the West, men have dominated the computer scene, adopting the techno-babble and anorak culture that repels and excludes women. In this part of south east Asia, this does not exist because, until now, there has been no technology.

Both Holgate and Disney firmly believe in the affinity of women to technology, given the chance, the space and the right introduction. According to Maggie, "Women should naturally take to technology. It's a lateral, instinctual tool that is very appropriate to women and the way they think. It really is ironic that women have been marginalised in technology until now."

Now that Jacquie has consulted women's and community groups to find out what they want, the plan is to establish a community centre in which adults and children - who have no IT access in schools - can use the computers. Training for designers and artists will be organised, as will courses in other areas for which there is a demand. It is envisaged that once one group is set up and has its skills developed, it will go on to support others. It's a new, community peer-education model that LIFT hopes will present a different way of looking at computers, who uses them and for what purposes.

As well as being a tool to help in traditional women's design work, design can play an important role commercially. In a country bursting at the seams with non-governmental organisations, there is enormous potential for design co-ops to produce materials to support those agencies. Funding for the project is expected to come from the industry itself, plus international aid agencies, governments and charitable foundations.

Idealistic? Certainly, but also grounded in sound pragmatism and with an eye to the future. In the exploitative and conscience-free global village of the late 20th century, it's as compelling a vision as they come. According to Maggie, "There is no organisation anywhere looking to put technology into some sort of moral and social framework. LIFT is trying to be a reference point for some of those human issues."

For more information about LIFT, write to PO Box 1577, London W7 3ZT or phone 0181 248 4666.

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