National agencies and local government units are scrambling to provide free online services while prospective election candidates are already promising to expand free Wi-Fi connections in their territories.
In Manila and several cities in the nation’s premier urban region, road works are presented as part of a program to build a ‘Wi-Fi City’. Some leaders who claim to be tech-savvy are pushing for a better Internet penetration to address inequality, inadequate services, corruption, and other social ills.
That Internet access improves communication and interaction with government leaders is obvious to all. That it can help empower individuals and small businesses is also easy to understand.
But to name it as the ultimate solution to the problems besetting the Philippines reflects a simplistic mindset. To assert that our daily suffering is caused by a slow and unreliable Internet distracts the public from confronting the other fundamental evils that plague our nation.
Free Wi-Fi is cool but it is no game changer. We can help poor families survive by making sure they have food on the table rather than simply giving them Wi-Fi access.
A developing country like the Philippines has to address basic problems such as intergenerational poverty, widening income gap between the rural and urban, jobless economic growth, and rapid deterioration of its natural habitats. All of these require offline interventions. These issues should be the priority of elected leaders and the private sector.
In the case of poverty, a troubling indicator is rising incidence of hunger. The Philippines is endowed with fertile lands but many of its people are food-poor. As the El Nino phenomenon leads to prolonged drought, even farmers in rural Philippines cannot produce enough to feed their own families. The sad and heartbreaking reality is that the people who produce our food – farmers and fishers – are the poorest sectors in the country.
The main challenge, therefore, is not how to develop apps for these troubled sectors but to resolve the causes of their deprivation. Historic inequities cannot be reversed by merely establishing cyber connections and making impressive data sets. Political empowerment, especially in the grassroots, is the key factor to substantially alter the unjust structures that oppress our people.
But is it right to frame the issue this way? Does it have to be an extreme binary between food and free Wi-Fi? Why can’t we assert that both are equally necessary?
Because there is real danger that if we draft a development program that highlights both food security and Internet access, the latter will be given prominent attention by influential urban-based opinion-making institutions such as the media and academe. Similarly, young urban voters who earn higher incomes than their rural counterparts will be more interested in discussing the same topic. Political parties which are targeting this large demographic might focus on issues raised by the digital generation at the expense of other equally valid concerns of rural voters and the rest of the digitally-excluded segments of society.
Also, more and more politicians are learning to recognize the potential of the Internet as a “weapon of mass distraction” which they can exploit to hide either their failures or the vulnerabilities of the political economy.
Hashtags about Internet trends are hip while chatting about the new fisheries code is interesting only for experts and affected sectors.
A politician can simply promote Internet access by clinching a deal with a local telco. But how about food security? This cannot be easily achieved by implementing cash transfers and other dole out programs. Politicians must offer a comprehensive plan which should involve several reforms such as enacting better trade policies, greater incentives to boost rural productivity, linking the countryside with the urban market, promoting sustainable production, and creating decent jobs for marginalized populations. In the case of Manila, the government has to explain why it plans to demolish all public markets or why it barred small fishers from catching fish in the municipal waters.
Between negotiating a free Wi-Fi service with favored telcos on one hand and implementing a thorough land reform to develop a vibrant domestic economy on the other, which do you think politicians will choose? The former delivers instant results and quantifiable public feedback while the latter involves complex inter-agency negotiation, legislation, and decisive political intervention.
Food or free Wi-Fi? The popular response is to choose both. Politicians will prefer the program that can garner more votes and higher public rating. But why subscribe to the mentality of politicians when we can forcefully assert that free Wi-Fi is welcome but we also have primary needs and rights that the state should first provide. Internet connectivity is quite meaningless to a starving farmer and a worker displaced by a development project in the city. In other words, free Wi-Fi in a poor community is like giving a cocktail dress to a homeless person.
To compete in the knowledge economy, the essential resource is our people who need to be healthy, happy, and highly-skilled. Free Wi-Fi can enhance their abilities and provide them with broader opportunities but the assumption is that they already have access to basic education, food, clean water, and decent shelter. Food or free Wi-Fi? Choose life over virtual life.
Mong Palatino is a Filipino activist and former legislator. He is the chairman of Bagong Alyansang Makabayan Metro Manila. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org