Communication for development Knowledge

A promising solution fraught with peril

By Mike Holderness
Freelance science and technology journalist
(Extracted from "Ceres",The FAO Review, No. 158 - March-April 1996)


Wiring the South: Internet and the developing world | Section 1 | Section 2 | Section 3 | Section 4 | Section 5


A delicatessen in Oakland, California, survives by tickling its patrons' jaded palates. Once a week the manager connects her computer, through the Internet, to the Earth Market Place service. She is given prices of products from a farmers' cooperative in Suriname, via a computer in Nairobi. She reads the description of their products and then negotiates a deal which will put more money directly in the pockets of farmers. This concerned restaurateur knows the methods of producing, manufacturing and transporting the products have been "certified sustainable" by Earth Market Place inspectors.

That's an example of the long-term potential of the Internet in encouraging sustainable development in the South. (As it stands now, Earth Market Place deals only with bulk orders.) On the other hand, imagine receiving a note saying that, in future, an environment magazine to which you subscribe would be available only on the Internet. It would save trees, save money and allow people almost immediate access to information as it is compiled. But the rub is it would cut off its readers who do not have access to the Internet for lack of computers, good-quality telephone lines, electronic mail connections and affordable telecommunications.

So while increasing amounts of information about scientific and technological developments are now available only on the Internet, the big question is: Has "information poverty" been added to the many other gaps separating developing countries from the rich North?

For the developing world, exclusion from sources of information is nothing new. Like the balance of power, the flow of information worldwide is essentially North to South rather than the other way around, or South to South. But many believe the industrialized world is moving from the age of industry into an Information Age. The believers include people at opposite ends of the political and development spectrum: from Newt Gingrich, conservative Republican Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, to the man known as Sub-Commandante Marcos of the Zapatista rebel movement in Chiapas, Mexico. (In a vivid example of what author Tom Wolfe termed "radical chic," Marcos agreed to be interviewed in 1994 by the glitzy US celebrity magazine "Vanity Fair". In exchange he received a laptop computer and printer which, with the help of couriers, he used to transmit his viewpoint to newspapers, magazines and support groups around the world from his Mexican jungle base.)

Slow and fast lanes

The development of the Internet is changing the way communications operate at a global level. There are the slow and the fast lanes of the Internet: from the simple transmission of text on electronic mail to the "information superhighway" through which graphics, sound and moving pictures can be piped into home computers. Because it is cheaper than other forms of telecommunication and gives access to a huge amount of information, the Internet has the potential to narrow the existing North-South information gap. But it relies on technology that is much less accessible and much more expensive in the South than in the industrialized world.

The Internet doubled in size in 1994 and has done so every year since 1988. It is the fastest-growing communications medium ever. Millions of people are finding their working lives, and increasingly their recreation, changed beyond all recognition. In the North there are new magazines and television programs devoted to the Internet, cafˇs where Internet beginners can learn to play in "cyberspace," news groups and bulletin boards on subjects ranging from alternative politics to sport or pornography. Users homeshop and "telecommute" to work without leaving the house.

The Internet - or Net, or Infobahn - is nothing more than a means of transport for digitized information. But it makes radically new patterns of human communication possible through its speed of transport and the fact that once a link is established it becomes very cheap to send information to one person or to a hundred. The Internet is more of a concept than a thing. It is best thought of as a new means of transport for information - the "tracks" over which actual information services "run." In the same way railways made regional and national newspapers possible, the arrival of the Internet (and its successors) makes new information services possible.

The first physical manifestation of the Internet was in September 1969. U.S. military planners were deeply worried about the prospect of what they called "decapitation" - a nuclear attack on a central command post which would leave their forces "headless." Their first attempt at a solution was linking together four computers on the West Coast of the United States as part of an Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) experiment.

The ARPA researchers determined that the way to make a communication system attack-proof was for it to be totally decentralized. So their design for ARPAnet - the basis for the Internet - had each computer connected by high-speed data cables to a number of neighbors. When computer A wants to send a message to computer B, it divides it into "packets." Each packet is sent to the neighboring C with a note of the "address" of B. Computer C looks up the best available route in the general direction of B and forwards the message. If computer C disappears, A tries its other neighbors. In this sense, each packet is thrown into the net and left to "swim" to its destination.

People "lucky to have typewriters"

The Internet has become dominant in the development of new communications services because it is so open, because by design it connects disparate computer systems and because it has been largely free at the point of use. It rapidly spread to U.S. universities and in the past three years into universities across the globe and into offices. The Internet is particularly accessible in the North where computers are commonly available and telecommunications costs are low and falling. It's far less accessible in countries where people are lucky to have typewriters, let alone computers, and where there is no direct access to the Internet - i.e. no "host" computer directly linked to the Internet through high-speed connections - and where people have to pay for the international communications to reach an access point. It is much faster and cheaper to access the Net with a good-quality telephone line (and a fast computer and modem) readily available in the North. Old and unstable lines, such as are often found in developing countries, are slower to transmit and receive data and therefore more expensive to use.

The Internet allows users to transcend time, distance and old-technology cost constraints. They can form working groups or "virtual clubs" with the people who share their interests, regardless of where they live. Bittu Sahgal of the Ecologist magazine in India has developed a worldwide network of contacts to feed him, by electronic mail, information on foreign-funded industrial and development projects. Users can access enormous quantities of information, although not all of it is reliable and useful. Using Internet services in countries with up-to-date telephone systems, it takes perhaps half an hour to complete research that would previously have lasted weeks. But local access varies enormously. Bittu Sahgal is waiting impatiently for an affordable link that will enable him to do the same.

In India, relatively high user fees, especially for business Internet providers, restrict access to the Net: Internet provider Business India Information Technology in Bombay, for instance, has to pay the Department of Telephones US$83 000 a year as charges. "The number of subscribers needed to pay the licence fee is very high," says the company's vice president, Anil Garg.

The products of academic research are generally made freely available, and this exchange has been dramatically enhanced by the Internet. Now the Internet is infiltrating the private sector and vice versa. Many newspapers and news agencies in the North put summaries of their content on the Net each day to entice readers into subscribing regularly. In the South, many journalists and editors see the Net as a way of building South-South news linkages and thus bypassing the filter of Northern news agencies.

This kind of "South-to-South communication is a distinct possibility - but is not happening at the moment because the service itself is rather new," according to John Mukela of the Centre for Development Information in Lusaka, Zambia. The bi-weekly "Lusaka Post" is one of only two African newspapers on the World Wide Web. Said Mukela: "Two other newspapers in Zambia have access but don't actually use the capacity...they haven't really got the hang of it."

Kanak Dixit, a Nepalese journalist believes "Southern journalists themselves would have to educate themselves a bit more to be interested in Southern issues. The tendency - which applies to me as well as others - is to look to the North for exciting new stories." Babacar Fall, for example, has been relaunching Pan African News Agency (PANA) from Dakar in Senegal, and in July 1995 PANA went on line. Soon they expect to have a World Wide Web page as well, providing an information service for a subscription.

Infrastructure is not in place

The Internet is the ideal solution to developing countries' information needs. No one can afford to fill Southern libraries with books, journals and other necessary publications on paper. But ideals are not easily realized: the infrastructure is not in place for quick expansion of the Internet in developing countries, particularly in Africa.

Two countries, Finland and the United States have more than one Internet host computer per 100 population. In comparison, in 1992, 49 countries from China to Cambodia, had fewer than one telephone per 100 people, and 35 of these were in Africa. India, for instance, has 8 million telephone lines for 900 million people.

Last February during the G-7 conference of industrialized countries, South Africa's Deputy President Thabo Mbeki pointed out there were more telephone lines in New York City's borough of Manhattan than in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa. "Half of humanity has never made a telephone call," he said. And in many parts of the South, what phone networks exist don't talk to each other. Calls from Dakar in Senegal to Lusaka in Zambia are still routed from Dakar to Banjul, Banjul to London and London to Lusaka." At a global level, at least 80 per cent of the world's population still lacks the most basic telecommunications. Within countries, urban areas may be better served, but entire rural areas are left out.

Telecommunications is now recognized as an essential tool for development: an unpublished study by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development charts a direct relation between growth in telephone-line density and economic growth. The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) is launching the WorldTel project to try to overcome the North-South gap. It estimates that, worldwide, investment falls short of needs by US$30 billion a year - even though it predicts a real rate of return of 25 per cent a year.

Following an ITU-sponsored study, the U.S. corporation AT&T is soliciting investors for Africa One - a US$1.9 billion very high-capacity fibre optic cable around the continent. Such a grandiose scheme is reminiscent of Cecil Rhodes' Cape-to-Cairo railway - and indeed Germany's Siemens "denounced Africa One as an exercise in new-tech colonialism," according to London's "The Guardian newspaper. Siemens has a rival proposal to wire Africa piece by piece.

Most of the capital cost of telephone service, though, is in the "local loop" between the subscriber and the exchange office. Technology could help here: cellular radio technology may soon be cheaper than laying copper wire in cities. For example, a licence has been granted to Ratelindo to provide 250 000 "fixed cellular" telephone connections in Jakarta, Indonesia. (Ratelindo is a joint venture between Indonesia's state-owned telecoms operator and a private company called Bakrie Electronics.)

Cellular systems, however, are likely to remain extremely expensive in isolated areas of low population density because the radio base stations that service the cellular phones have a limited radius. The U.S. company Motorola plans to extend mobile phone coverage to the entire surface of the planet with its Iridium scheme. This involves launching 66 satellites into low earth orbit. Two years ago, Motorola was predicting that a hand-held satellite phone, capable of high-speed data transmission, would by the end of the century cost US$2 000.

Food bills, telephone bills

Relative costs are an important consideration in assessing how realistic are the Internet's prospects for use in developing countries. David Dion works for the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome. He spends the equivalent of US$400 a month on food and US$200 a month on telephone calls, including those his computer makes to the Internet. Harry Surjadi works for the "Kompas Morning Daily" newspaper in Jakarta, Indonesia. He estimates that he spends the equivalent of US$4.50 a month on food and US$27 on telephone and Internet access. In real terms, Internet access time is 12 times more expensive for Harry Surjadi and his neighbors than for David Dion. The differential is higher for the computers they need to compose, send and read messages - although the cost of hardware will also exclude a high proportion of people in the North.

For the 10 per cent of Londoners who are unemployed, a new US$1 500 computer would represent about six months' total income. For 45 per cent of Indonesians who are "underemployed" it represents several years' cash income - and prices for imported electronic goods are often much higher in developing countries. A modem in India is about four times the cost in the United States, even without taking into account the huge differences in standards of living.

Tony Rutowski is executive director of the Internet Society's U.S.-based International Secretariat. In expanding the Internet southward, he sees the main problem is "the availability of capital to purchase capital-intensive goods and services." Africa is particularly badly affected. Tariff rates on information technology products are more than 40 per cent in most African countries, restricting access further in a continent already poor in infrastructure.

Wide, dependable, affordable access to the Internet would address one perennial problem for developing countries - the "brain drain." For example about 6 000 highly qualified Indians emigrate to the United States every year. If Internet access allowed them to stay in daily contact with the best authorities in their fields and access libraries and new publications wherever they may be, would they need to go abroad to do PhDs? "If the Internet does halt the brain drain it will do so precisely because people will feel adequately in touch," said John Mukela. "Many find the lack of exposure at home more debilitating than the low income - and many will prefer to work from their own communities if the possibility for international exposure exists."

Technology is not the only barrier to full enjoyment of the Internet. Much of what's available on the Net is in English. Unknown numbers of people do communicate in other languages, but for now it is only practicable to send e-mail in languages which use the Roman or Cyrillic alphabets. Software programs that handle different scripts are common, but files generated in a language like Hindi or Japanese by one program are not readable by other programs. The International Standards Organization adopted a scheme called Unicode in 1993, providing interchangeable representations of every language and script from Japanese to Cherokee, but practicable software to generate and read Unicode files doesn't look likely to arrive until later in 1996. "I think in English," said Ranil Senanayake of the Environment Liaison Centre International in Nairobi, Kenya. His mother tongue is Sinhalese, "which makes a huge difference to what I think. If you read and think in the language and you have the cultural and social values ingrained in you, the way you interpret that information may be totally different."

It's not just that the English language dominates the Net. Commentators currently define the most common political position expressed on the Net as a sort of anarchist-capitalism, at the extreme individualist end of the U.S. spectrum, reflecting the spontaneous and anarchic growth of the medium to date. As to what that implies for other cultures Kanak Dixit says: "One has to be realistic and realize that this is the situation. You have to respond by accessing the Net more, not less. It's exactly like the argument about satellite television: do we roll over and say the battle is won or produce better programs in the South?"

"The impact of this cultural dominance "depends on how much of a sponge you allow yourself to be," says Dorothy Munyakho of Interlink Rural Press Service in Nairobi, Kenya. Amadou Mahtar Ba from the Pan African News Agency believes: "There is a need for our countries to propose specific services on the Infobahn so that they can have a presence in it and become information providers." Adds Ranil Senanayake: "The homogenization of humanity that's going to happen through radio and the published media is only going to be accentuated by this." John Mukela does not see "homogenization" as all bad. "As technology advances, so too does the notion of 'one world' and the general breakdown of barriers, both physical and intellectual."

NGOs "at the forefront"

The Internet has been particularly adroitly used by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) which in many parts of the South are at the forefront of electronic communications. In countries such as Ghana and Tanzania, the majority of electronic mail accounts are on hosts set up to meet the needs of NGOs, according to information from provider GreenNet.

The "instant response" facility offered by the Net is a boon to development - when it is available, dependable and affordable. A women's group in Mexico City uses electronic mail to ask sympathizers in California to do research for them. When a new textile factory was announced, management was approached by the women who came bearing a bulky portfolio of information on the company, its profits and its ownership. And a London women's group called Living Bosnia uses e-mail to keep in contact with women in Bosnia. It can be extremely difficult to make a phone call to find out what aid they need, but e-mail keeps on trying until it finds a way through. Trade unions have used the Net as a campaigning tool: global networks played a crucial role in helping unionized Guatemalan workers gain recognition and wage increases from Pepsi-Cola a couple of years ago.

Education, training, debt relief, democratization, investment in infrastructures, improved and cheaper telecommunications all have a part to play in an eventual narrowing of the information gap. But the opportunities offered by the Internet are also identified as positive elements in an already unequal world: clearly, the South has much to gain from increased access to information, and no time to lose.


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