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Thursday, 15 March, 2001, 21:09 GMT
Laptops or healthcare?
A satellite dish in a Cambodian village
Some see IT as a way to help developing countries
By BBC News Online's Kevin Anderson in Washington

Bill Gates, one of the world's richest men, shocked the world last year when he announced that the world's poor desperately need healthcare not laptops.

It was a startling statement from a man who for many embodies the information revolution and is one of its biggest boosters.

But many in the development community think Microsoft's co-founder oversimplified the issue, and at a conference in Washington, they said that information technology will be a critical aid in solving the world's social ills.

IT's role in development is like fish and water. There is a fundamental linkage

Jeffrey Sachs, Harvard University
Fifty years ago, Dr Dino Djalal's father grew up in a poor, remote village on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. No one in the village had electricity, and certainly no one owned a radio or television.

His father made his way to Jakarta and won a scholarship to study abroad. He travelled to the University of Virginia in the US and earned a law degree.

Village internet

Two years ago, Dr Djalal's father returned to his village. It now had electricity, and one person had a computer connected to the internet.
food distribution
The internet has brought information to distant parts of the world, but crushing poverty remains

He searched the internet for information on international law, and the search engine returned thousands of pages.

"That is a revolutionary change," Dr Djalal said.

"Fifty years ago, you had to be smart and travel halfway around the world to gain access to this information. The internet is changing that."

But he said that despite the arrival of the internet, it has done little to improve the lives of the villagers. "You look around the village, and not much has changed. There is poverty everywhere," he said.

And he said that instead of the using the internet to access useful information, for the most part, it is seen as little more than an amusing toy.

Digital divide

He also said that if he were to return to Indonesia, even with an advanced degree, he would earn $50 a month. Even if he were to spend nothing, it would take him half a year to save the money necessary to buy a new computer.
NetAid webpage
The UN Development Programme is using the internet to fight poverty

The digital divide, the gap between the information have's and have-not's, exists not only within developed countries but also between developed and developing countries.

In the past two years, Dr Jeffrey Sachs of Harvard University said he has spoken at 20 conferences about the global digital divide, and he is worried that the gap is not closing.

"I'm not sure we're making the bridges yet we need to," he said.

Practical projects

Unlike Mr Gates, Dr Sachs and several other development experts believe information technology will play a key role in improving the lives of the world's poor.

"The idea of IT's role in development is like fish and water, there is a fundamental linkage," he said.
students using computers
Egypt wants to use IT for distance education programmes

Dr Sachs said that one of the things that is needed to bridge the global digital divide is practical projects in areas such healthcare and education.

Egypt is one country that is trying to use IT to train its population and stimulate job growth.

Nabil Fahmy, the Egyptian ambassador to the US, said that his country must create 550,000 jobs a year to meet its economic goals.

To train and educate its people, Egypt simply does not have enough textbooks, but through distance education, it can overcome this problem.

"It is not a choice, it is an imperative for us. We cannot meet our development needs or social needs without using IT," Ambassador Fahmy said.

Karen Souryal works with a group of Egyptian NGOs, and she said a lot of the groups' work deals with basic poverty needs.

"But we see a real need for IT in training," she said, adding, "IT is a tool you can use."

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12 Oct 99 | Entertainment
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