BBC NEWS Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific

BBC News World Edition
 You are in: Technology  
News Front Page
Middle East
South Asia
Talking Point
Country Profiles
In Depth
BBC Sport
BBC Weather
Sunday, 6 October, 2002, 11:14 GMT 12:14 UK
Why the poor need technology
Graph showing who is online where

More than 600 million people worldwide have some sort of access to the internet.

That is an astonishing number, and reflects the rapid growth of the network since it was invented in the 1970s.

However, that still leaves about 5.5 billion people who do not use the net and who have no access.

Most of these people live outside the developed Western countries. While over half of UK households are online, only 0.1% of homes in Bangladesh can claim the same.

Wide gap

Few politicians now talk about the digital divide as a major development issue, and there is a growing sense that it is yesterday's problem.

Bangladesh student
The internet can help students
As the cost of computers and of network connectivity has come down in the West, there is an unexamined assumption that the network is on its way to being generally available to all who want it.

This is not the case. The gap in the access to and use of the latest information and communications technologies - computers, mobile phones, digital networks, even interactive television - is as wide as ever, and the consequences are being felt in all the poorer parts of the world.

It may seem inappropriate to consider access to technology in the same light as access to other resources, like clean water, adequate health care, sufficient food, or educational opportunities, all of which are thought to have priority in development plans.

However, it does not make sense to separate things out this way. If the growth of the net in the West has demonstrated anything it has shown how access to information and communications opportunities has an impact on all aspects of life.

School children in London with net access from home have an advantage in doing research for homework, and a Punjab village with a working internet connection has an advantage in monitoring weather patterns, knowing what the tides are doing or getting help with pest control.

Local solutions

Sometimes technology is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

In the 1970s, many developing countries were encouraged to base their farming on the heavy use of chemicals and machines. But as the tractors broke down and the costs of pesticides rose, the result was famine and despair.

Senegalese woman with mobile phone
Developing countries invested in mobile networks
The same thing could happen with computers and networks, if we encourage dependency on technology which cannot be maintained and does not meet real needs.

This is less likely to happen if the computers are deployed sensitively, and if the impetus comes from local people who are solving the problems that matter to them.

Two trends are particularly promising. The first is that many developing countries are managing to leapfrog over the industrialised world by using the latest technologies and missing out all of the earlier stages.

Instead of installing a fixed-line telephone system, for example, a wireless mobile network can be put in place far more cheaply and speedily.

Instead of brick-like laptops being lugged around, super-slim models with long battery life can be used.

Second, we are seeing the development of appropriate technologies. The Simputer is the best example of this so far - a powerful computer processor in an easy-to-use package available at low cost.

We can expect to see more - a mobile phone designed specifically for shared village use would be the obvious next step.

Tools to learn

While getting internet access to remote hill villages in the Andes or in India may not be as important in itself as getting clean water or effective healthcare, the net - through e-mail or the web - is often a gateway to other resources and to self-reliance.

CD-Roms used in Bangladesh
CD-Roms: Useful tool for spreading knowledge
A mother who is worried about her child's health can find out about childhood illnesses.

A farmer can take a beetle he finds on his crop and check it against a comprehensive catalogue on a CD-Rom in his village.

Children can learn about local history, world events or scientific advances in school, using resources that would never be available in print because of the cost and the problems of distributing books.

Perhaps it is time to update the old adage: "If you give me a fish, you feed me for a day. If you teach me to fish you feed me for life."

Maybe it should now say: "If you give me information, you answer one of my questions. If you get me online, you let me answer my questions for myself."

The digital divide

Escaping poverty

Having a voice

Sharing knowledge

Staying healthy


See also:

16 Jul 01 | Science/Nature
02 Oct 02 | Technology
03 Oct 02 | Technology
Links to more Technology stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Technology stories

© BBC ^^ Back to top

News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East |
South Asia | UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature |
Technology | Health | Talking Point | Country Profiles | In Depth |