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August 17, 2000

Downloading Some Common Sense

By and

In a world where civil wars and natural disasters rage, where millions suffer from malnutrition and hunger, and millions more die from malaria and other tropical diseases, why are world leaders spending so much time fretting about the "global digital divide," or the fact that the vast majority of the world's people lack computers and Internet access?

That was the big story coming out of the recent "Group of Eight" meeting in Japan among officials from the United States and other developed countries: that the major Western nations are launching a campaign to get the rest of the world wired. They've yet to explain exactly how they will achieve "universal Net access," but they are determined to make Third World nations "full participants in the network economy and society."

These officials may have noble intentions, but they're missing the larger issue. Even if they bought every man, woman and child the latest laptop computer, and ran the fastest Internet lines to every dwelling in the developing world, what good would it do? As a recent editorial in Japan's Asahi News aptly noted, "Some gadgets may be handy, but they will simply be mere white elephants if they are not useful in the daily lives of the people."

Most developing countries don't even possess the infrastructure necessary for Internet communications. In 1997 the 63 countries classified as low-income by the World Bank averaged only 30 telephone lines per 1,000 people (compared to 634 lines per 1,000 people in the United States). The entire continent of Africa has only 14 million phone lines, fewer than you'll find in Manhattan. Many regions in these countries have telephone service and electricity only sporadically, if at all.

Even without the infrastructure problems, there's the problem of illiteracy - a huge barrier for anyone trying to navigate the largely word-based medium of the Internet. Poor nations have an illiteracy rate of 32 percent (versus 1 percent in the United States). "In large parts of Africa today, young girls are more likely to die before reaching the age of 5 than they are to learn to read," U.S. Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers recently told a U.N. forum on information technology.

So how will Western industrialized nations get poor countries connected to the Internet with a handful of telephone lines and insufficient electricity? Frankly, officials aren't sure. "That's a key point," admits Denis Gilhooly, a senior adviser on technology at the U.N. Development Program. "And nobody has figured it out." Yet G-8 leaders are standing by, checkbooks in hand (Japan has already pledged $15 billion over five years), ready to bridge the "digital divide."

Such misguided ideas highlight a troubling resistance among global bureaucrats to the true foundation of economic growth and prosperity: freedom. Property rights, a lawful society, a stable electoral process, free trade, minimal government intervention in markets - all are pillars upon which a healthy economy is based. The "Index of Economic Freedom," published annually by The Heritage Foundation and The Wall Street Journal, consistently shows those countries willing to support these pillars experience the most significant economic growth.

Once wealth is achieved, people invest more heavily in computers on their own. Even among the poorest countries, the wealthier ones have more personal computers per capita. For example, Senegal had a per capita income of $554 in 1997 and 1,141 computers per 100,000 homes, while Sudan had a per capita income of $251 and 114 computers per 100,000 homes. If development experts wish to see more computers in developing countries, they should encourage them to adopt policies that increase economic prosperity.

The focus on computers is merely the latest development fad for these "experts." More than $1 trillion in foreign aid has been funneled to developing countries since 1960. This money failed to coax economic growth, which is why the experts are now proposing a new panacea.

The problems facing developing countries are complicated, which may explain why simplistic schemes like universal Internet access appeal to global bureaucrats. Having computers may be nice, but it shrinks to insignificance when you lack basic amenities - or when you're not even sure where your next meal is coming from.

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Brett Schaefer is the Jay Kingham Fellow and Adam Thierer is a former Walker Fellow at The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org), a Washington-based public policy research institute.

Distributed nationally by Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Wire

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