Information Technology and Development: Beyond “”Either/Or””

After years of drift and inattention to the problems of global development, during the past half decade the international community has dramatically increased its focus on strategies to help the people of the world’s poorest countries share in the benefits of globalization and escape the traps of poverty, disease, and lack of education. The decision of the world’s leaders at the United Nations Millennium Summit in September 2000 to adopt eight specific development goals provided an agreed political benchmark for measuring progress. Left open, however, were crucial issues about how best to achieve those goals.

A key unanswered question is the potential contribution that information and communication technology (ICT) can make to this effort. The question is not new. In 1984 the Commission for Worldwide Telecommunication Development (the Maitland Commission) issued an influential report, The Missing Link, citing the lack of telephone infrastructure in developing countries as a barrier to economic growth. The advent of the global information technology revolution in the 1990s set off a heated, sometimes acrimonious debate among development specialists and policymakers about the place of ICT in development.

On the one hand are those who see wiring the global South as a way to transcend decades of painful economic development and catapult even the poorest countries into the information age. As United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan observed in his Millennium Report, “New technology offers an unprecedented chance for developing countries to ‘leapfrog’ earlier stages of development. Everything must be done to maximize their peoples’ access to new information networks.” Proponents of this view not only stress the potential benefits of ICT but also argue that in an increasingly globalized economy, countries that fail to “get connected” will fall further and further behind.

At the opposite end are those who assert that “you can’t eat computers.” In the words of Microsoft’s Bill Gates, “Let’s be serious. Do people have a clear view of what it means to live on $1 a day? . . . There are things those people need at that level other than technology. . . . About 99 percent of the benefits of having [a PC] come when you’ve provided reasonable health and literacy to the person who’s going to sit down and use it.” Investing in ICT for poor countries, they argue, draws precious resources away from more urgent development needs. The lack of critical infrastructure, such as adequate energy grids, and of education keeps citizens of poorer countries from tapping ICT’s potential.

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