Limited Resources, Unlimited Potential

Limited Resources, Unlimited Potential

April 3, 2006 NEWS 0

Source: New Straits Times


Limited Resources, Unlimited Potential


WOULDN’T it be simpler if you just gave them cash and told them to be on their way?

That’s probably the commonsense approach to corporate sponsorships. And we all know that such sponsorships are not without the element of branding/advertising.

“It’s not charity. It’s not a give-and-walk-away. It’s a give and then a governance structure in place. It’s making sure we advance the cause and change lives,” said Abdul Rahman Abu Haniffa, Microsoft’s public-sector strategic engagement director, of the Unlimited Potential (UP) programme.

And that’s not saying that Microsoft’s UP Grant is completely altruistic. With a focus on IT literacy and skills, it’s not difficult to see that Microsoft, as a software developer, stands to gain from a larger potential market which would immediately be aware of the Microsoft brand.

But the net societal effect looks set to be greater than the size of any mock cheque. The cash from the UP Grant is bundled with software and curriculum besides “soft” support in terms of mentoring and partnerships. The result is to equip people with the necessary skills to tackle the digital divide.

For this year, Microsoft has selected three grantees locally: eHomemakers, the National Council of Women’s Organisations (NCWO) and Yayasan Salam Malaysia, who are the biggest recipients from Microsoft Malaysia with US$146,951 (RM550,000) to implement a plan to counter the lack of IT skills in rural Malaysia. Its goal is to train 400 people in the first year and 2,100 over three years. But the fact that both e-Homemakers and NCWO support women is significant. While other demographics are based on age, location, income or disabilities, women are simply women, making up about half of the population and obviously, also a part of other groups of digitally marginalised people.

“We get asked, ‘why women?’ But they happen to be the sharp end of a wide scope of potential grantees for this grant cycle,” explained Abdul Rahman.

What is certain though, is that eHomemakers and NCWO are progressive-thinking NGOs.

The NCWO, which has been at the frontline pushing for legislative change in the interests of women since the establishment of Malaysia in 1963, has pursued the UP grant with women’s development in mind.

“We want to form an electronic community, targeting women, so they can integrate IT in their work,” said NCWO deputy president Datuk Ramani Gurusamy.

On the other hand, eHomemakers, founded by a mother, Chong Sheau Ching, when she was still breastfeeding, is simply fighting for the option of working from home, an option that can mean a lot to housewives.

“I chose to be a mother, which is one of those difficult decisions every career woman has to make. And I chose to be at home and work from home. But when I quit my job and came back to Malaysia, I found that there was no such option,” said Chong.

“I felt the pain of not having a choice. It wasn’t so much about women’s rights. It was a simple case of work option.”

Back in 1995, telecommuting was unheard of in this country and Chong learnt that the stigma was that as a housewife with education, she was a failure in the eyes of the public, since she was “wasting” her degree.

After meeting some women via email, still a novelty in those days, she realised that all of them were drawn to email because as housewives, it was a godsend to them as there was no need to leave the house at all.

Through shared frustrations, the Mothers for Mothers conferences were born to help housewives achieve their dreams of working from home. This eventually led to the eHomemakers initiative, which turned the static site to the dynamic portal, which properly reflects the work that Chong and her team have been doing.

“For the last eight years, eHomemakers has been advocating working at home especially for disadvantaged women, such as cancer or lupus patients or even chronic back pain, it’s difficult for them to work in an office because they need to rest every few hours,” said Chong, who as a single mother finds that working from home allows her to break up her work time to cater to the needs of her family.

Even though they’re not too hot about being referred to as a bunch of housewives, the fact that they are makes their virtual office dynamics even more astounding. Using such technologies as voice-over-Internet-protocol for teleconferencing and on-the-fly document editing and an online order purchase system that links up to handphones to request for products to be made, this organisation puts many other NGOs and SMEs to shame.

With this grant of US$26,999, eHomemakers hopes to provide ICT skills training for 60 disadvantaged women to enable them to set up Home-Based Administrative Assistance services and support these women with job placement.

But it is exactly this job placement that is the pickle.

“Training is very easy for us. But then there are barriers that don’t allow them to use their skills. Finally, there still aren’t solutions for employers to employ people to work from home,” explained Chong.

While eHomemakers will use the grant to train the women and do their best to place them with jobs, the organisation is also looking to put in place a digital solution where employers can monitor a team of such teleworkers who may have special needs and require more frequent breaks.

But that’s one for the future. In the meantime, NCWO plans to use their US$48,599 grant to touch 400 digitally marginalised women ranging from the young to the seniors and also single mothers.

These include courses with the National Union of Plantation Workers for women from the estate, although some of the young men will be welcome as well. The Vocational Training Opportunity Centre (VTOC) run under affiliate member, the Young Women’s Christian Association, will cater to many disadvantaged girls including Orang Aslis.

The NCWO’s ICT centre in Petaling Jaya runs about 16 courses, including several which are dedicated to senior women.

“The VTOC reaches young and marginalised women from around the country and if we don’t give them the opportunity, no one will,” stressed Ramani.

And the NCWO centre caters to older women who are perhaps shy to learn with others who are much younger than they are. It gives them a chance to start from scratch.

Bridging the digital divide

AS one of the foremost names in technology, Microsoft has seen the use of computers affect and being affected by the advent of globalisation.

Today, more than ever before, and perhaps even more so in the future, digital exclusion is becoming a barrier in the workforce.

“Looking at our assets in technology and experience, we believe we can make a difference here and help people bridge the divide,” says Microsoft’s public sector strategic engagement director Abdul Rahman Abu Haniffa.

With each market requiring different forms of technological support, a cohesive programme was created to streamline the individual aspects of Microsoft’s corporate citizenship while still manifesting itself uniquely from market to market, so dubbed the Unlimited Potential (UP) programme.

In the Asia-Pacific region, the recent grant-giving cycle at the tail-end of last year resulted in 24 NGOs across 12 countries being awarded US$8.2 million (RM31 million) in cash, software and curriculum.

On an aside, the curriculum is an interesting aspect, as Microsoft sees no reason for each NGO to expend resources developing modules to train people in using exactly the same tools, be it hardware, software or information. Instead, the Unlimited Potential course material is made available in 10 languages, including Bahasa Malaysia, with another 15 languages scheduled for translation this year.

Globally speaking, the goal is to reach 250 million people by 2010, through UP and Partners In Learning, a programme targeted at education. In Malaysia, the aim is to contribute 6 million to that figure.

As a corporate body, Microsoft’s selection of grant recipients is a stringent process, where potential grantees are required to submit a business plan that primarily reaches as many individuals as possible.

However, it became apparent that sheer numbers could not be the ultimate barometer as the most marginalised peoples were going to be harder and more expensive to reach. These were those in rural areas or those who required more in-depth training or those who may be physically or medically disadvantaged.

“As an organisation we’re maturing, so we’re applying what we’ve learned in the other aspects of our business. We have come to better understand the NGO landscape here and did our best to pick those who could really deliver on their promise,” explains Abdul Rahman.

“We were looking at scale and cost per person because it’s on a competitive basis against candidates from the other Asia-Pacific countries. But sometimes you can’t just say it’s more expensive on a cost per person basis because if your constituent is handicapped or very rural, the cost will be high but the impact is much greater.”

But Abdul Rahman admitted that what swayed decisions greatly was the level of leadership.

We looked for people who are as inspired as us to bridge the divide.