August 17, 2000
By Brett D. Schaefer and Adam D. Thierer
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
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
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.
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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Brett D. Schaefer
Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs
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