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Friday, 21 July, 2000, 10:04 GMT 11:04 UK
When the web is not world-wide

By BBC News Online internet reporter Mark Ward

Life without the internet is unthinkable for people in Europe and the United States but for many around the world a telephone is a luxury - never mind access to online shopping.

In a bid to bridge the digital divide, heads of state and government at the G8 summit in Okinawa are expected to announce aid for developing nations to help them catch up on technology.

ITU figures on phone lines per hundred people
Angola: 0.77
Ethiopia: 0.32
Libya: 9.06
Bolivia: 6.17
Cuba: 3.89
Haiti: 0.87
Myanmar: 0.55
Pakistan: 2.22
Turkmenistan: 8.22
Experts say that communication technologies do have the potential to improve the lot of developing nations, but warn that no matter how much money is pledged it is unlikely to be enough to close the gap.

Academics say governments should rethink the way they tackle the digital divide and offer more than just money.

The disparity between "have-nets" and "have-nots" is one of the key themes for the three-day meeting of G8 leaders this weekend.

Politicians and policy advisors fear the spectacular growth of the internet in developed nations will mean that developing nations fall even further behind.

Divided world

The difference in technology use between the most and the least wired can be stark. There are more internet hosts in Manhattan than there are in the whole of Africa.

Communications is so important these days to every aspect of development that the two go hand in hand

Sam Paltridge, OECD
According to International Telecommunication Union figures, there are nearly 30 PCs per 100 people in the UK but in countries such as Malawi there is one computer for every 10,000 people.

It can be dangerous to generalise however as in some countries, such as Botswana and Senegal, the use of cellular phones is taking off.

A week ago, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori announced a five-year $15bn aid package to bring new technologies to developing nations and he is expected to urge other G8 countries to do the same.

Policy gap

But Professor Richard Hawkins, a research fellow at the Science and Technology Policy Research Unit at Sussex University, said the figures pledged were unlikely to make a huge difference.

He said a developing nation would have to spend up to 1.5% of its GDP every year to make up the shortfall in technology. "The investment required is huge," he said.

Mr Hawkins added that one of the best ways to get people to adopt technologies was to make them less expensive to use. Cheap phone calls and internet access always boost take-up he said.

Sam Paltridge, a communications analyst at the OECD, said governments had a poor record when it came to helping nations develop and deploy technologies.

Typically, he said the grants were short-lived and left aid organisations or nations to meet the running costs of expensive machines and train people to use them.

Mr Paltridge said it was not just a lack of money that was stopping developing nations adopting technologies more quickly.

Phone numbers

Often monopolistic telephone companies resist liberalisation.

In some nations, said Mr Paltridge, the amount of phones per 100 people had not changed for decades.

Sri Lanka is a good example of what can happen when regulation is slashed and monopolies are dismantled. The government allowed foreign companies to become licensed telephone operators.

Before liberalisation, there were 0.73 telephones per 100 people. Now there are between four and five.

"That may not sound like much but the difference it makes in availability of infrastructure is huge," said Mr Paltridge.

Both experts believe that communications technology could make a huge difference to the lives of people in developing nations.

Phone and computer technology can be used to educate and inform people about health initiatives, such as making sure they turn up on time for a vaccination.

Mr Paltridge said while the people of many developing nations need water and electricity before they need a web connection, better communications were essential to making change stick.

"Communications is so important these days to every aspect of development that the two go hand in hand," he said. "You cannot separate them."

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21 Jul 00 | Americas
Internet in the Amazon
21 Jul 00 | Business
Digital divide - Japan style
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