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Where it's @.

Undoubtedly the world wide web is changing the world. But when there are people who don't even have access to clean water, never mind a computer, will the divide between rich and poor continue to grow?

FEW OF US CAN HAVE FAILED to notice the furore surrounding the internet. Travel, shopping, bubbles, venture capital, WAP mobile phones -- all are featured in the current circus surrounding the online world. From cities and business districts across the wired world, the internet has fundamentally changed work, leisure and even relationships. But in other areas, such as sub-Saharan Africa, life remains very much the same. More than 80 per cent of the world's population has never even heard a dial tone, let alone sent an email or downloaded information from the world wide web.

"Think how powerful the internet is. Then remind yourself that fewer than two per cent of people are actually connected," says Larry Irving, former US assistant secretary of commerce. "The power of the web increases exponentially with every person who goes online."

According to a recent UN Human Development Report, industrialised countries, with only 15 per cent of the world's population, are home to 88 per cent of all internet users. Less than one per cent of people in south Asia are online even though it is home to one-fifth of the world's population. The situation is even worse in Africa. With 739 million people, there are only 14 million phone lines. That's fewer than in places such as Manhattan or Tokyo. Eighty per cent of those lines are in only six countries. Even if telecommunications systems were in place, most of the world's poor would still be excluded -- because of illiteracy and a lack of basic computer skills. In Benin, for example, more than 60 per cent of the population is illiterate. The other 40 per cent speak French or local dialogues, but four-fifths of websites are in English -- a language understood by only one in ten people on the planet.

But the lack of resources in poorer communities doesn't explain the technology gap alone. In the developing world, there is still resistance to the idea that technology is a quick-fix. Take the African Virtual University (AVU). This is a World Bank-sponsored programme that has broadcast over 2,000 hours of instruction to over 9,000 students in all regions of sub-Saharan Africa. The initiative has allowed AVU students to take courses given by professors from world-renowned institutions in Africa, North America, and Europe. But there is a general feeling that this is not the solution.

People complain that hi-tech education -- available only to a select elite -- stands in stark contrast to the basic needs of the populations in the so-called `developing world'. These are still often without electricity and running water. "Our priorities are hygiene, sanitation, and safe drinking water," says Supatra Koirala who works at a private nursing home in Kathmandu, Nepal. "How is having access to the internet going to change that?"

Even in the USA, the racial divide is very much apparent in the `wired' statistics. White people are nearly three times as likely to have internet access at home as Hispanics and black Americans. Still, some experts believe that the internet will be virtually global in five to seven years. Even the remote mountain kingdom of Bhutan opened its first internet cafe this Spring, based in the capital Thimphu. "The cafe is a place where students can bring their own software and either entertain themselves or learn something," says proprietor Umesh Pradhan, who also says the cafe is a good way of interesting the public in the IT revolution. He admits that most of Bhutan's estimated 600,000 people -- many of them subsistence farmers -- cannot afford the rates for internet access. "It is expensive for us also because at the moment there is not a lot of business and most people just use the internet for a few minutes to send email," he says.

For the Net to be a truly global venture, infrastructure must be put in place, and its presiding white, US-culture must change. All of which means a lot of money. The Net may be the wave of the future but age-old problems still apply.

Case study I: Burkina Faso

Father Maurice Oudet is a priest who has lived in Burkina Faso for 30 years. He uses the internet to gather information and publish a magazine for farmers in some of the country's 71 local dialects. When he first arrived in Burkina Faso, Oudet was based in a remote parish with no telephone. The closest post office was 20 kilometres away. Today he is better connected from Koudougou, a town about 100 km from the capital Ouagadougou, where he now lives. He has a telephone and internet access. But he still doesn't accept the internet hype. "The internet cannot change the lives of the poorest people because it doesn't put food in their mouths," he says. Land-locked Burkina Faso is one of the poorest countries in the world. Life expectancy at birth is around 45 years. Although around 90 per cent of people live on the land, many families still struggle to eat. The average farmer's income is equivalent to 60 pence a day and they often live far from towns and telephone lines. This is one of the major problems of bringing the internet to the developing world. Burkina Faso also has a largely illiterate population. Only 19.2 per cent of people speak and read French, the official language.

Oudet's magazine, published every three months, uses many of the diverse languages of Burkina Faso to help people learn. Agricultural workers can contribute to the magazine by sending in their views and experiences, and passing on farming advice. The magazine is produced in Koudougou, but the editorial content is gathered from volunteers from each region and language. Websites as far away as Canada provide feature material. Although the magazine is not yet published online, the possibility remains appealing. The online magazine would create a community of farmers, using technology to exchange ideas and information. There are some encouraging signs. Burkina Faso is one of 13 African countries where local telecom operators have set up a special area-code for internet access. That means that a call to the internet only costs as much as a local call even if the Internet Service Provider (ISP) is far away in a major city. So change is on the way.

Case study 2: Mongolia

Communication has never been easy in Mongolia, a country nearly three times the size of France but with a population density of 1.5 per sq km, one of the lowest in the world. The internet might seem the natural answer, but the problem is less one of infrastructure than the cost of getting online. The price to connect is certainly out of reach for most ordinary people. One ISP charges approximately the equivalent of 30 [pounds sterling] per month and that does not include the cost of the phone call. The average GDP per capita is equivalent to 1,359 [pounds sterling]. In addition, more than one third of the population lives in poverty. Outside the capital Ulan Bator, many areas still do not have telephone access.

The Asia-Pacific Development Information Programme (APDIP), a United Nations-funded organisation based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, is trying to help. APDIP has launched Citizen Information Service Centers, where those in remote areas, including sections of the Gobi desert, can now connect to the central government, apply for grants online, receive news, and obtain basic training in computing. APDIP also set up a cyber-cafe in the UNDP building in Ulan Bator, to show people what technology has to offer. "We want to involve ordinary people," says a spokesman. "If they cannot see the vision then we cannot make it work. Young people are the ones who have to create this. People are very eager to tap into new technology, but they're not sure of how to best use it."

The programme's long-term aim is to encourage businesses and colleges to take up information technology and to build a culture of open information. It has set targets for the next two to three years and is building an action plan up to 2010. Changing mindsets is one of the hardest tasks. Under socialism, inefficiency and bureaucracy were rife. Letters could take days to travel anywhere. In addition, government remains wary of the power of email.

Case study 3: The USA

Silicon Valley conjures images of the information revolution. Technology has created hundreds of young millionaires in the Valley. But such riches have not reached everyone. In East Palo Alto, the area bordering the tech-rich Stanford University campus and the corporate HQs of multi-billion dollar companies such as Yahoo and Oracle, more than 17 per cent of the population live in poverty. Only 14 per cent have a four-year college degree and less than one in five families have a computer in the home. But as technology increasingly becomes a part of everyday life and political debate, a new awareness is emerging that the benefits of technology will not filter down by themselves.

"It's taken a while for mainstream culture to understand how it would make their lives easier -- and what their lives would be like without it," says Magda Escobar, the executive director of Plugged In, a community project that aims to bridge the digital divide. "It is also a very sexy issue. And it's politically advantageous for everyone -- liberal or conservative -- to focus on it." Plugged In is leading by example in East Palo Alto. The non-profit organisation offers residents state-of-the-art computers and courses to build their literacy and computer skills, work on their CVs or make money as web designers. Plugged In Enterprises, (PIE) a teen-run web page design business, is one of the centre's most dynamic programmes. Each year 36 teenagers learn cutting-edge business skills and earn money working on projects for real clients, including Hewlett-Packard and Sun Microsystems. PIE is run by John Mireles, a 17-year-old from nearby San Jose. Formerly a graffiti artist, John's projects include transferring his own highly-charged images into digital form.

The latest report from the US Commerce Department, Falling Through The Net, reports that the digital divide widened between 1998 and 1999. Black and hispanic households are approximately one-third as likely to have home internet access as households of Asian/Pacific Island descent, and roughly two-fifths as likely as white households. The disparity does not only follow racial lines. Even at the lowest income levels, those in urban areas are more than twice as likely to have internet access than those rural areas.

Half of all Norwegians or 2.2 million people, now have access to the internet, according to a Norsk Gallup. One million people go online there every day

With almost 70 per cent of its population having access to the internet, Iceland now has the highest rate of internet connection in the world, according to USA Today


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Title Annotation:computer literacy in the devloping world
Author:Ryan, Nick
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2000
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