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AUGUST 4 , 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 30 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK

Just do it
Two good ideas for narrowing the gap between wired and unwired

ALSO:
Moscow on the Yangzi:
Russia's new push in Asia offers opportunities for growth and peace

"The poor will be with you always," said Jesus. So it is 2,000 years later at the world's most important conference, the Group of Eight summit of industrial nations, held this year in Okinawa July 21-23. For the first time in a G8 meeting, leaders of poor nations met with those of the rich, as well as top officials of multilateral agencies. Representatives of African countries, ASEAN, the Non-Aligned Movement and the Organization of American States pleaded for debt relief and efforts to narrow the "digital divide" -- the fast-growing gap between nations with access to information technology and those starved of IT.

Having taken infotech as the theme of the summit, host Japan put its money where its mouth was. Fresh from his first Internet session, Prime Minister Mori Yoshiro had said that IT would be "one of the most powerful forces in the 21st century." At the summit, he offered $18 billion for programs to upgrade and expand IT in the Third World, as well as to fight diseases afflicting developing nations. Tokyo had also invited the World Economic Forum, the Swiss-based group that brings together leading global companies and governments, to propose measures to address the global digital divide. The WEF obliged with 19 broad initiatives for world leaders to ponder.

With myriad world problems to tackle, the G8 could use some help in narrowing their to-do list to a few urgent priorities. On IT just keep one word in mind: free. That may be a four-letter word, but the two initiatives it encapsulates can lay the foundation for IT advancement among the have-nots. First, keep the technology, media and telecommunications sectors powering the Internet free from undue state interference. Such freedom would allow an open, competitive environment to flourish and promote the strides and spread of IT. There is a story in India about a bureaucrat asking a businessman what the government can do to push the infotech industry. The answer: nothing -- just leave IT alone. Hear, hear.

The second measure to bring infotech to the unwired masses is to just do it: give IT to them -- computers, web-phones, satellite and fiber-optic links, the works -- at low cost, if not for free. Many a development official will argue for some grand program with objectives, experts, consultants and administrators to deliver PCs to less privileged communities and help them figure IT out and use it to the best advantage. On this issue, another tale from India, told at the WEF main conference in January, is worth recalling. A researcher put an Internet-linked computer on a Bombay street where some destitute, unschooled youngsters were hanging around. How long did it take them to go from gawking ignorantly at the machine to surfing the Web and finding sites they liked? Answer: six minutes. Moral lesson: if you wire them, they will come.

So G8ers, pay attention to WEF Proposal D: "Establish a special initiative for the least developed countries, to include financial assistance, that would give emphasis to infrastructure development, as well as to creative applications of technology in fields such as education, public health, community development, cultural enrichment and so on." In short, put IT in the hands of people who can't afford it. Where does one start? Millions of PCs end up in landfills and storage cabinets in G8 countries year after year. A program to channel used but usable computers to poor nations would be a good way to spend Tokyo's $18 billion.

Write to Asiaweek at mail@web.asiaweek.com

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