Digital dreams for the worldwide web of poverty
Trying to create a true World Wide Web by targeting the 90% of the global population lacking internet access may seem like a commendable aim. However, it is a case of putting the computer before the cart.
By Khaled Diab
In his own way, Atef is a pioneering individual. He left his village in Upper Egypt for the bright lights of the ‘Mother of the World’ Cairo to provide his children with a better life. Although he comes from the deeply conservative south of the country, he took the novel step of working as a cleaner for well-to-do Cairiens.
Atef – perhaps a more traditional man at home – wasn’t much of a cleaner but his simple dedication to his wife and kids was touching, which led his customers to turn a blind eye to his corner cutting. Illiterate himself, Atef was extremely proud of his children and he would retell – with fatherly pride and softening eyes – how well they could both read.
Needless to say, in addition to not being able to read and write, Atef is computer illiterate. My girlfriend once tried to explain to him the concept of e-mail while she was sending one off to her family in Belgium. He asked her if she could send an “electronic letter” to his family back in the village, thinking it would – like snail mail – somehow appear magically with their local postmaster.
Having not received a formal education, his ignorance of computers was hardly surprising – he’d already laughed off as impossible the idea that subzero temperatures existed. “How can you have less than zero?” he’d argued.
To my mind, Atef underscores the essential folly of the recent gathering of world leaders in Geneva for a UN conference to bridge the global digital divide. While the World Summit on the Information Society’s goal of closing the electronic chasm separating rich countries from poor was ostensibly a noble cause, I couldn’t help wondering whether this conference wasn’t a case of putting the computer before the cart.
In many parts of the world, information is a vital tool and developing countries may well be on the margins of the Internet, but surfing the Web is a luxury that untold millions of poor people struggling to subsist can ill afford. What use is a computer in, say, a sub-Saharan African village where people have no electricity or communications infrastructure, not enough food, and where a large proportion of the productive population is dying of AIDS and other communicable diseases?
People in such situations need to bridge the yawning diet and disease divide before they can think about crossing the digital one. Development and humanitarian assistance is already scarce as rich countries continuously fail to meet the modest target of devoting 0.7% of their national incomes to aid.
I believe it would be better to use the rich world’s limited largesse to help those at the lowest rung of the subsistence ladder eek out a better existence and reach self-sufficiency. First, we must improve access to safe drinking water, medicine, irrigation services, seed, basic literacy programmes for the hundreds of millions of adults who cannot read, and primary education for all children.
After we’ve overcome these very real but very basic barriers to development and helped people enter the real world, then we can start talking about bridging a digital divide. Computers, of course, are more photogenic than a communal tap, but are they more useful? They have been given as part of aid projects to developing countries before. However, in many cases, they turned out to be another case of development white elephants. Without the proper training, attitude and readiness, the gleaming machines often languished disused in unopened rooms collecting dust and slowly growing obsolete.
Moreover, the importing of hardware and expertise that will be necessary will mean most of the development aid money used will flow straight back to the donor without having touched the life of somebody like Atef in anyway. If he’s lucky, he may get a job cleaning the air-conditioned offices housing the alien electronic wizardry. But the fact that he can’t read and doesn’t know any foreign language will mean that he cannot benefit directly from the technology without undergoing years of special training.
Representatives of the developing world who are best heard on the international arena and in the rich world are usually members of a well-heeled and educated elite. Their motivation is partly driven by a desire to play with the big boys – you have internet we want it too. And it is this elite that stands to benefit the most from becoming part of the information society.
Although efforts to level the electronic playing field might help to narrow the gap between rich and poor countries in aggregate terms, it will probably succeed in broadening the already wide internal wealth and educational divisions within developing countries by providing the privileged with even more knowledge and the few jobs such investments provide.
Breaking down barriers between cultures across the globe is an admirable end, but there is a downside. As the educated classes in developing countries find common ground with their cultural peers overseas, this will alienate them further from the poorer classes within their own countries.
Perhaps Atef’s literate children may, one day, reap the future fruits of the world summit and will be able to use e-mails and communicate with the outside world. But even they require basics including better schoolbooks, more teachers and more classrooms before they can join the information society.
It is a sad fact that less than 10% of the world’s population have internet connections and the divisions between rich and poor are widening. However, giving out a few token laptops and modems will not set the world to rights. People need to be able to stand on their own two feet before they can surf.
ă2004 K. Diab. Unless otherwise stated, all the content on this website is the copyright of Khaled Diab.