Friday, February 15, 2008

The One Laptop Per Child Program: The Politics and the Bureaucracies

With two major competing programs known so far. Will the current one laptop per child program really help children in developing nations prepare for future I.T. jobs, or will the two competing programs devolve into a commercialism turf war similar to the VHS and BETAMAX War of the early 1980’s?

By: Vanessa Uy

Despite over-extensive press coverage, a lot of us “nettizens” never seemed to have lost interest on the promises and the problems surrounding the one laptop per child program. As of late, there are two major programs all rivaling the merits for their raison d’ĂȘtre like fiscal sensibility, technical feasibility and sheer practicality. The two programs are currently field tested on a scale to accommodate the need of a typical school in Nigeria to gauge the success – or failure – of the program.

One “version” of the program is the brainchild of philanthropist Nicholas Negroponte. One of the aims of his one laptop per child program is to provide a bridge that would span the gulf of the existing “Digital Divide” that exists in developing countries. Another aim of Nicholas Negroponte’s program is to promote computer literacy in the poorest parts of the world. The computer laptops used in Nicholas Negroponte’s pilot scheme costs a little over a hundred US dollars each, they’re Internet / Mesh Network capable and can send video and still pictures to the Internet via it’s built-in webcam. If it succeeds, the program would serve as an irrefutable proof of the modern computer’s feasibility as an educational tool even in developing countries. One of the program’s more intransigent problems is the endemic lack of a steady supply of mains / grid electricity in developing countries. This problem can be solved by using a rip – cord operated generator similar to those used in those portable radios that are distributed throughout Africa during the 1990’s to help broadcast information in preventing the spread of HIV / AIDS. Though equipping the laptops with such generators would increase their price, there are also plans for solar / photovoltaic chargers for the laptops built-in batteries. Despite of the problems, the hands on / try something / creativity promotion proviso of the laptops has been one of the most redeeming qualities of the program. By training their problem solving skills, the laptops have become a very positive educational influence to the students despite of Nigeria’s rigid “old school” tradition of educational hierarchy that new knowledge and skills should flow only one way – from the teacher to the students.

The other one of these one laptop per child program that rivals Nicholas Negroponte’s is being run by the Intel Corporation, and is called the Intel PC classmate program and is tried on an another school in Nigeria. The Intel PC classmate program according to Intel is about investing in school kids (Tapping the knowledge economy?). The laptops that are provided by Intel to the students currently costs 350 US dollars each. The reason Intel’s laptops are more costly is because of the extensive use of solid - state flash memory technology in their laptops. At present, solid – state flash memory technology is much more expensive than conventional data storage devices like hard drives and CD / DVD burners. But solid – state flash memory devices can work much more reliably than their “conventional” counterparts in the arduous conditions typically found in the environment where the laptops could be used like dust, moisture, and the shock forces produced when the laptop is “accidentally” dropped. The Intel Corporation says their program is investing on Nigeria’s children by “grooming” them to acquire skills as future I.T. employees. Thus making the children’s job prospects in the future much more secure.

From my point of view, both programs are really visionary in tackling the current problems that can be encountered when developing countries try to improve their educational system. Will the promise of both programs remain but a dream when faced with the harsh realities of the high cost of upgrading the telecommunications infrastructure of developing countries just to make them Web 2.0 compliant, and what about these countries electrical grid infrastructure? Plus, let’s not forget that most developing countries like Nigeria is still currently trying to upgrade their existing “conventional” educational system just to provide basic literacy skills – which includes the English language by the way – which are a pre – requisite to computer literacy.

Even though both of the one laptop per child program is already 5 years old. Both of the programs original “mission directive” was to alleviate the “lack of qualified teachers” problem in developing countries by allowing financially disadvantaged kids access to the vast stores of knowledge that’s available on the Internet. Despite of current technical problems like status of the local telecommunications and power grid infrastructure, plus the politics of censorship that’s recently discussed by this year’s Internet Governance Forum (IGF) held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The greatest benefit that the one laptop per child program will be to the environment because unnecessary air travel will be kept to the absolute minimum. This is so because NGOs and program overseers can track the progress of there respective “pet projects” on-line because the kids are uploading the video documentation of the program’s progress. Who knew that something that started out as an educational program is now a part of the solution in reducing our overall “carbon footprints”?

Friday, February 1, 2008

Internal Revenue Allotment Law Loopholes: Gentrification in Disguise?

Every democratically elected government has the legal right to tax their constituent citizenry in order to raise the much needed revenue to maintain it, but what if the said government resorts to rigmarole and bureaucratic legalese to increase revenue collection. Taxation without representation anyone?

By: Vanessa Uy

Before we delve into the essence of what is Internal Revenue Allotment or IRA, lets briefly review the facts surrounding the current fiscal environment of the Philippine Government. Our country is in deep financial woe. The current marching order of the incumbent administration is to look for new revenue sources. This means the Philippine Government has to improve existing tax collection laws, which sadly it has failed to do during the past 30 years or so. Tighten up the government’s budget and maximize to spend what’s left on “concrete infrastructure” i.e. infrastructure projects that blend utility with public relations appeal. The benefits of maximizing spending is a proven idea that allowed the economist John Maynard Keynes to formulate plans that saved America from the Great Depression. In keeping with the subject at hand, just what is Internal Revenue Allotment?

According to the Section 284 of the Local Government Code of the Philippines (RA 7160), Internal Revenue Allotment (IRA) is a local government’s share of revenues from the national government. It (the amount) is largely based on land area and population. LGUs (Local Government Units) also derive revenues from various sources. Typically, the IRA for municipalities accounts for 90% of total revenues. Since cities have more sources of local revenues like taxes collected from large business establishments, their IRA ranges from 50% to 70% of the total.

Recently, there’s a row over a number of municipalities being “fast tracked” by the national government to be declared as cities even though the annual average population and income of these municipalities barely meets the criterion needed for it to be legally declared as cities. The reason the national government did this so that they can save a bundle by reducing their IRAs to these municipalities. Other legal “loopholes” in the IRA law are exploited by the incumbent administration include the short - term financial incentives to a municipality’s bid for becoming a city despite a lack of existing taxable viable commercial infrastructure in the present and in the foreseeable future. Also, what about domicile data? Since the majority of Filipinos now work abroad, the average annual population of these municipalities could vary wildly because an overwhelming majority of these workers can go home only once every 18 months. Some of them even have to wait for 5 years just to go home. This government oversight – i.e. inadvertent omission or error – could result in long – term reductions in Internal Revenue Allotment of those municipalities.

To compensate for lost revenue, these city / municipality hybrids will fall back on the methods that will work expediently under the current political climate is by increasing the rates of real estate tax. Surely this will lead to gentrification since our tropical climate has become a Mecca for Western tourists. It won’t be long that only “expats” (ex patriots / rich foreign nationals) can afford to keep their homes while the long - term native residents (ordinary Filipinos like you and me) will be driven to the “poorhouse” thanks to exorbitant real estate taxes.

If I sound unduly alarmist, it is because the Internal Revenue Allotment existing “legal loophole” has shed light on the fact that our country’s outlying municipalities had inherited – by legislation – the proverbial “Bad Part of a Social Contract”. You know: that bad part of the social contract from the incumbent administration that willingly sidelines social justice issues just to improve the government’s revenue collection. Why should those citizens living in the outlying municipalities owe Feudal Obligations to the Makati Corporate Elite?

As of late, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and her Public Relations Campaign Machinery has purchased TV airtime about how the majority of us Filipinos had benefited the previous seven years of economic progress that her incumbent administration had brought. You know that “Sa pitong taong nakalipas, ramdam namin ang asenso” TV adverts. You know, those public on air testimonials of Filipinos who benefited our country’s economic progress during the past seven years. Even though to me that particular advert reeks of jingoism, the truth can’t be denied. The problem is, does the extra money that us Filipinos earned during those previous seven years of economic progress will just be used to pay the coming exorbitant real estate tax increases? Just because the national government wants more revenue while the outlying municipalities be forced to increase real estate taxes just to keep their basic programs running. If our newfound prosperity only allows us a pittance to spend on something just to keep our existing roofs over our heads, then to me this doesn’t qualify as economic progress. And who among us would be genuinely happy to owe Feudal Obligations to people who by far are not exemplars of ethics and social responsibility like our corrupt elected government officials. If this does not qualify as gentrification, then I don’t know what is?