Economics shackles info-poor

May 8, 1998

Information technology's uncertain potential for educating and enriching the world's poorest people has become the hot issue for development specialists. The rush of publications includes a report for the United Nations from the University of Sussex, and books by Teesside and Brighton academics.

The report Knowledge Societies is prepared for the UN Commission on Science and Technology for Development by Robin Mansell and Uta Wehn at the Sussex Science Policy Research Unit. The Panos Institute has a similar, but much shorter and more cynical report: The Internet and Poverty: real help or real hype? Both, though, outline the same settled consensus: that access to information and communications technologies is critical to economic development.

One consequence is a huge demand for education and training. The fear is that countries lacking IT and English-language skills will fall behind in the communication-development game and their people will become, relatively at least, yet poorer. Massive resources are already being committed to this theory. The Worldview International Foundation, which appears to be based in Norway is an educational institution that claims to teach ten million people and plans to expand to 100 million students in the next 15 years. It should perhaps be better known than it is. It coordinates 1,000 non-governmental organisations providing training in the less-developed world.

Dozens of countries are setting up Open University clones: knowledge, they believe, is going to be wealth.

Education and training are not the only hurdles that developing countries face. Full Internet access arrived in Ghana two years ago. It cost $1,300 a year - roughly the annual income of a journalist. A modest computer costs three schoolteachers in Calcutta. Mansell and Wehn describe an area of India in which a million people have 200 phone lines and five computers between them.

The ending of national telecommunications monopolies is widely seen as necessary to expand new services. More thought may need to be given, though, to the regulation of a worldwide telecomms oligopoly, in which a few players are more powerful than most countries. Satellite phone technology will bring global Internet connections but at prices that exclude all but those who are rich by European standards.

The only apparent solution to the problem of the high costs of computer hardware, software and communications is to establish communal facilities. South Africa has particularly well-developed plans for "information kiosks", including solar-powered units for the 16,400 schools which are not likely to get mains electricity in the near future.

During the three years of debate and study which produced these books, however, no one has come up with an answer to the fundamental problem: cash. Those who have the cash can invest in the new technology and stand to make more. Divisions between richer and poorer countries may increase. Divisions within countries, particularly between city and countryside, seem certain to increase unless the market can deliver some economic miracle for all. Ironically, a technology which enables the relatively wealthy information worker to set up a laptop office on any rock or tree-stump in the world may also drag people from the country into the cities.

Knowledge Societies, edited by Robin Mansell and Uta Wehn, Oxford University Press.

The Internet and Poverty: real help or real hype?, Panos (9 White Lion St, London N1 9PD).

Cyberspace Divide, edited by Brian Loader, and Europe and the Developing World in the Globalised Economy, by Swasti Mitter and Maria-Ines Bastos, will be published by Routledge next year.

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