Rich countries and
distribution of IT
in poorer parts of
The United Nations' human development report highlights the crucial role that information technology (IT) has to play in improving the lives of the world's poorest. And it scotches the belief that access to the information available on the Internet is not a priority compared to encouraging skills such as mechanics and construction. As the lead author Sakiko Fukuda-Parr says: "Technology policy affects a host of development issues including public health, education and job creation."
Of course, problems such as the Aids epidemic in Africa, the vulnerability of places such as Bangladesh to global warming, food security, sanitation and housing are the most pressing and immediate concerns. But it is unlikely that progress can be made on any of these fronts without the people involved becoming more informed. To achieve this, a decent education is crucial, but so is access to information.
Through the Internet, farmers can exchange information on techniques to improve crop yields and perhaps even swap seeds; cross-breeding has been a crucial technique in crop development for millennia. Information on preventing the transmission of Aids and other diseases can also be distributed extremely efficiently.
But perhaps of even more significance, the Internet offers people in poor countries a means of organising and sharing information in ways that their political masters perhaps would not like. The UN report refers to the role that an e-mail campaign played in toppling the Philippine president Joseph Estrada last January as an example of the democratising force of IT.
In many poor communities, one TV set powered by a generator is often shared by an entire village. This set provides people with access to news, entertainment and a view on the wider world. But with TV it is much easier to control the content.
It should be possible for communities to manage the use of one computer with Internet access in a similar way. The report urges the development of solar photovoltaics to power the computers and wireless connectivity to establish Web connections in remote areas. Achieving this is a great challenge; rich countries and companies must support the distribution of IT in poorer parts of the world.
The report endorses the proposal of the head of research at drug company Novartis that high-technology companies devote a percentage of profits to developing non-commercial products. And it argues that companies should consider pricing products more cheaply in poorer countries.
So far, few high-tech companies have been prepared to support ideas like these, preferring the large profits that were possible in developed world markets. The current economic retrenchement offers a great opportunity for forward-looking companies to get involved in the developing world. Not only is it socially progressive, and provides invaluable PR, it could also open up markets which, in years to come, could drive economic growth.