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The gap between the info-rich and info-poor has become a fashionable topic in economic development circles. Narrowing the gap has become a concern of economists, aid officials, and government leaders. At a June '97 conference in Toronto, Canada, co-sponsored by the World Bank and the government of Canada, an audience of more than 2,000 participated.

At the conference, experts were at odds as to just what is the best information strategy for the poorest peoples of the world. Some suggested wiring the schools of sub-Saharan Africa -- or using the Internet as the magic elixir might be the answer. Others endorsed simple technologies, such as Windup radio. James Wolfensohn, president of the World Bank, believing the answer lies in using both, notes that India has built a technological elite in need of advanced technologies and an impoverished majority in need of something simpler.

As the global economy is increasingly knowledge-intensive, policy makers, business people, and investors are keen to a country's ability to absorb information, and knowledge, especially in digitized form.

International Data Corp., Framingham, Mass., has compiled a popular "Information Society Index" that ranks 55 countries by their capacity to absorb knowledge. The study ranks such factors as rates of telephone, radio and computer ownership, school enrollments and degree of press freedom.

The U.S., Sweden, and Canada are ranked at the top. Argentina, Russia and South Africa are further down the list. Near the bottom are Saudi Arabia, India, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Egypt. Completely off the list are 150 countries that could not be ranked, mostly because reliable data on the spread of computers, telephones, and basic literacy is not available.

Other findings point out that more than 80% of the world's population cannot make a telephone call. In developing countries like Peru, telecenters serve 640 people with basic communications such as telephone and fax service. In parts of Eastern Europe, it's a 10-year wait for a phone line. In the poorest countries like Mozambique, only one person in 300 has telephone service.

With an eye to the future, planners regard the information system spanning all of Latin America that has been put together by the Rome based International Fund for Agricultural Development. It has linked 500,000 poor households in 3,600 communities across the continent, with guidance by 5,000 technical staff members.

 

-- Posted the week of July 9, 1997

Source: The Wall Street Journal July 7, 1997 pg. A1