Information Technology & Development: Beyond "Either/Or"
- ISSN: 07451253
After years of drift and inattention to the problems of global development, during the past half decade the international community has dramatically increased its focus on strategies to help the people of the world's poorest countries share in the benefits of globalization and escape the traps of poverty, disease, and lack of education. The decision of the world's leaders at the United Nations Millennium Summit in September 2000 to adopt eight specific development goals provided an agreed political benchmark for measuring progress. Left open, however, were crucial issues about how best to achieve those goals. A key unanswered question is the potential contribution that information and communication technology (ICT) can make to this effort. The question is not new. In 1984 the Commission for Worldwide Telecommunication Development (the Maitland Commission) issued an influential report, The Missing Link, citing the lack of telephone infrastructure in developing countries as a barrier to economic growth. The advent of the global information technology revolution in the 1990s set off a heated, sometimes acrimonious debate among development specialists and policymakers about the place of ICT in development. On the one hand are those who see wiring the global South as a way to transcend decades of painful economic development and catapult even the poorest countries into the information age. As United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan observed in his Millennium Report, "New technology offers an unprecedented chance for developing countries to `leapfrog' earlier stages of development. Everything must be done to maximize their peoples' access to new information networks." Proponents of this view not only stress the potential benefits of ICT but also argue that in an increasingly globalized economy, countries that fail to "get connected" will fall further and further behind. At the opposite end are those who assert that "you can't eat computers." In the words of Microsoft's Bill Gates, "Let's be serious. Do people have a clear view of what it means to live on $1 a day? ... There are things those people need at that level other than technology.... About 99 percent of the benefits of having a PC come when you've provided reasonable health and literacy to the person who's going to sit down and use it." Investing in ICT for poor countries, they argue, draws precious resources away from more urgent development needs. The lack of critical infrastructure, such as adequate energy grids, and of education keeps citizens of poorer countries from tapping ICT's potential. Modern ICT began to have an impact in some developing countries even before widespread adoption of the Internet. In Brazil, for example, the computer industry accounted for more than 74,000 jobs and $4 billion in revenue by 1990. In 1988 India launched a set of policies that fostered a software-development industry whose exports grew to $5.7 billion by 1999-2000. But the explosive growth of the Internet in the mid- to late 1990s drew increasing attention to the so-called digital divide. Just how serious is the gap? For telephones, the picture is mixed. In 1991, total telephone penetration (fixed plus mobile) per 100 inhabitants stood at 49.1 for the developed world, 3.3 for emerging economies such as Eastern Europe and China, and only 0.3 in the least developed countries (LDCs). By 2001, the gap between developed (121 per 100) and emerging (18.7) had narrowed considerably (from a ratio of 15:1 to 6:1), but that between emerging countries and LDCs had grown (from 12:1 to 17:1). For the Internet, the gap remains significant, although bright spots exist. China, for example, saw a 75 percent increase in Internet users, to 59 million, from 2001 to 2002, making it the second-largest Internet-using country in the world (in addition to being the largest mobile telephone market). Africa now has 5 million Internet subscribers. Moreover, according to the IMF World Outlook, 2001, "The rate of diffusion of IT to developing countries has been rapid compared to earlier all-purpose technologies" such as railroads. But today, says the International Telecommunications Union's World Telecommunications Report 2002,"The 400,000 citizens of Luxembourg between them share more international bandwidth than Africa's 760 million citizens." In October 2000, 95.6 percent of all Internet hosts were in the industrialized countries; Africa had only 0.25 percent and its share was falling. Taking Action Growing awareness of the digital divide spurred several initiatives by the developed world and the international organizations responsible for development, including the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the World Bank. At its July 2000 summit the ...