Information technology needs fertile ground

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Much emphasis has been placed on the need for the North to help bridge the 'digital divide' with the South. Equal emphasis is required on creating the conditions in the South that will allow individuals to exploit the full potential of information technology.

In a small village in India, a group of women sit hunched over a computer terminal, checking out today’s price for their farm produce before setting off for the local town. In a school in Costa Rica, pupils follow a complex chemistry experiment as details of each stage flash up on a computer screen. And in Uganda, a midwife checks the Internet for the advice that she should give to a pregnant woman infected with HIV.

Meanwhile, however, elsewhere in India an Internet café is closing down because a slump in tourism means that one of its main customer groups has failed to materialise, while local users can't afford to log on. In a Bolivian school, a computer lies abandoned in a corner after its hard disc has failed and repairs are deemed excessively expensive. In an African newspaper building, the only terminal remains locked in the editor’s office, where no one apart from the editor is allowed to use it.

There is no doubt that information and communication technologies (ICTs) have come to play a central and essential role in a wide range of development strategies. From food production through health delivery to education and the media, the benefits of being able to access information and process it at speed have brought innumerable benefits, and the list of successful projects is a long one.

But as delegates prepare for the forthcoming World Summit on the Information Society, the first part of which takes place in Geneva, Switzerland, in December (the second will be in Tunis in 2005) many will also be aware that the link between the potential and the reality remains tenuous. For every success story there is also a failure. Indeed some hard-headed economists still question whether the heavy capital investment required by ICTs has greater value than, say, building new classrooms or hospital facilities.

Bridging the digital divide

The challenge at WSIS will be to convince politicians that investment is essential in both. On the one hand, it is becoming increasingly clear that almost every development project can benefit in principle from an ICT dimension of some form. Each such project has, at its core, the task of putting knowledge into practice. And the quicker and cheaper that access to this knowledge can be provided, the more cost-effective the project is likely to be.

It is a commitment to such reasoning – which lies behind calls to bridge the 'digital divide' – that is likely to dominate much of the WSIS proceedings. ICTs have already dramatically transformed the economies – and the social practices on which they are based – in the rich countries of the world. The longer it takes the poor countries to adopt the same practices, the greater the social and economic divide between them and the rich will grow.   

At the same time, however, while ICTs are an important source of empowerment, they are no automatic panacea to the ills of underdevelopment. Equipment needs a viable environment in which to operate, both at the technical and the human level. This means that a supporting infrastructure needs to be built up in which the equipment can be embedded. It also means that the individuals who will use the equipment need the opportunity – and the incentive – to learn the necessary skills.

Priorities for WSIS

At a recent seminar in Cambridge, Massachusetts, organised jointly by Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and the University of Harvard, it became clear that two particular issues need to be high on the agenda in Geneva in December. One is the cost of Internet access; divide the high charge for long-distance telephone calls in many developing countries by the relatively low wages, and in real terms the cost of using the Internet can be hundreds, if not thousands, of times more for an individual in poor country than in a rich one. 

A common temptation is to blame this state of affairs on the policies of governments – particularly those who continue to regard income from the use of telephone lines (installed at public expense) as an important source of revenue that they are reluctant to lose. The solution often proposed by those pursuing this line of argument lies in privatisation, embodying the idea that only open competition will successfully drive down prices and make telephone calls more affordable.

But this is not necessarily the case. In some countries in Africa – Rwanda is an example – enlightened government policies have been sufficient to bring prices down. In other countries, privatisation has had little impact, as those who control prices manage to continue to keep them high. Often there is merely a shift from public to private profitability, and in the process (as in South Africa) large sectors of the population continue to be excluded from any connection at all. The challenge for WSIS will be to lay a framework for regulatory structures that will simultaneously bring down prices while ensuring the widest possible service.

Technical and social challenges

A second challenge facing the international community is to devise new strategies for producing ICTs that are tailored to the specific needs and conditions of the poor in the developing world. Most personal computers, for example, are built to be used by individuals who are both literate and numerate. Such preconditions can be taken for granted in most developed nations. But they are far from the case in the rest of the world.

Those at the Cambridge seminar who called for a new approach to the design of ICTs to aid in the fight against poverty included Muhammad Yunus, founder and president of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh. Yunus, whose organisation pioneered the financial mechanism of microfinance designed to meet the conditions that exist in rural villages, has a vision of how the same approach could be applied to information technologies.

One such device, he suggests, would be a 'digital genie', controlled and responding by voice (and in local dialect), that could answer questions ranging from “where can I sell my eggs today to get the best price” to “my daughter has a bad fever, where can I go to get suitable treatment”. Others suggest the need for new forms of software designed to interact much more efficiently with information on the Internet, and therefore able to make up for bad and/or expensive telephone connections.

The technological opportunities in this field are enormous. Indeed, one of the most significant results to come out of the WSIS would be an international commitment to significantly increase the effort dedicated to research on ICTs for the poor. With the proper support, this could well have the same appeal as recent calls for a shift of emphasis on medical research towards often-neglected tropical diseases. 

But it would be misguided to focus purely on new technical fixes; comparable social experimentation (and research) is needed at the same time to explore the most effective ways of linking ICTs to human ingenuity. For that, in the long run, is how the most effective applications will come about. Governments can provide the fertile ground that would allow that to happen. But it is only when the technologies and the skills to use them are placed in the hands of the individuals who stand to benefit directly that the real information revolution will come about.