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Last Updated: Monday, 8 December, 2003, 10:06 GMT
Cambodians share in the digital economy
By Patrick Falby
In Phnom Penh, Cambodia

One of many casualties of Cambodia's civil war, San Kolap needs a crutch to walk with a heavy limp.

Worker at Digital Divide Data
Typists earn up to $65 per month plus benefits
When she was one-year-old, she was permanently maimed by a rocket that hit her family's home.

That left her with bleak prospects in Cambodia's dismal economy. Labour officials observe that the disabled are the poorest of the poor in the south-east Asian nation, and usually excluded from society.

"[When I was younger] I thought I didn't want to live in the world," said Ms Kolap, now 23. "When I went outside I was afraid of people."

Today she has a different outlook. After a local organisation gave her some basic computer skills training, Ms Kolap got a job at the non-profit Digital Divide Data (DDD) in July 2002.

She is now also studying English literature at a local university, and plans to become a teacher at a private school.

"Now at DDD, I think my life is very important. I can get a job and go to university and do something good," she said.

This is precisely the success story Canadian Jeremy Hockenstein envisioned when he founded DDD in 2001.

Social mission

On a trip to Cambodia in November 2000 he was convinced that there was not much opportunity for work in the impoverished country, but a great desire to learn.

"It just struck me seeing all the internet cafes and English schools - while they believed in the promise of globalisation, it hadn't brought them any benefits yet," said Mr Hockenstein.

San Kolap
San Kolap is looking forward to the future
When he went back to work in Boston in the US, he came up with the idea of creating a data entry company similar to those found in other developing countries such as India, but employing the disadvantaged and disabled.

Mr Hockenstein and Jaeson Rosenfeld, an American colleague at management consultant firm McKinsey & Co, started DDD with $25,000 of their own money, a $25,000 grant and technical advice and software donated by a firm in India.

Their business mission was to cover costs with client revenue and their social mission that all employees be given education scholarships.

The first grant money came from Michael Chertok at the Global Catalyst Foundation, who was so impressed that he now serves on DDD's board.

"Within six months, they were generating enough income to cover their operating expenses. This is unusual for projects in the developing world," said Mr Chertok.

One of the early challenges, said Mr Hockenstein, was getting employees to produce quality work on deadlines after a lifetime of living day to day.

However eventually accuracy rates improved. Grants from the British Government, the World Bank and USAID have helped the company to expand to over 100 workers.


A recent trip to the main office on a dusty street in Phnom Penh revealed over 30 workers clacking at keyboards, working on an archive of a directory for residents of Boston in the 19th century.

DDD has earned over $275,000 in revenue through such contracts.

Other clients include several local non-governmental organisations, a local mobile phone company and Harvard University's Crimson newspaper.

Worker at Digital Divide Data
We're trying to show that globalisation can benefit some of the world's poorest citizens
Jeremy Hockenstein
DDD's first contract, archiving back issues of the Harvard Crimson, drew criticism from sweatshop activists.

The student newspaper, which advocates a living wage for workers on its university campus, was accused in a Boston Globe article of hypocrisy for hiring low-cost Asian typists.

In Phnom Penh, DDD general director Nhev Sith Sophary said the reality was that if the contract had not gone to Cambodia, it would have gone to India or the Philippines.

The debate, he said, disregarded how globalisation could help the poor.

"People here got very angry with the Boston Globe because they thought it was trying to make them lose their jobs," said Mr Sophary.

Work at DDD does seem more desirable than the alternative. For a highly prized job at a garment factory, Cambodians work for up to $45 a month. Typists at DDD earn up to $65 per month, plus benefits, for about 80 fewer hours.

In the end, controversy brought DDD more clients, said Mr Hockenstein. The company is now running in the black with all the core work done by Cambodians.

The main office in Phnom Penh has more than 100 staff members. In early October DDD created almost 30 more jobs when it opened new operations in the western Cambodia city Battambang and in Vientiane, the Laos capital.

"We're trying to show that globalisation can benefit some of the world's poorest citizens," said Mr Hockenstein.

"We hope ours is a model of how you can do it responsibly, and if you do it responsibly you can actually get more work."

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