Tech Into Plowshares As the gap between the developed world and the developing world has grown, so have anti-U.S. feelings. Bringing technology to the masses might help.
(FORTUNE Magazine) – On my 11th birthday, back in 1964, I moved from the North Shore suburbs of Chicago to Lagos, Nigeria. My father ran a project there to spur industrial develop-ment. In my two years in Africa's most populous country, I got as good a sense as a pre-teen can of our Nigerian neighbors. As an adult, I've followed the rise of the information technology industry, chronicling the semi-miraculous advances of the past decades in computing, communications, and now biotech and energy. As I think about the tragedy of Sept. 11 and how we all ought to respond, I cannot help putting it in the context of those experiences.
As a wide-eyed child, the most jarring part of moving from the most developed country in the world to one of the least was the shocking contrast in living standards. But that contrast was clearer to me than it was to Nigerians. At that time they had few windows into life in the developed world.
That's no longer true. The poor and disenfranchised of the world know how different their lives are from ours. Television and other media have penetrated all but the most remote societies. You can see Baywatch in Lagos as easily as you can in New York. So as the gap between the two worlds has grown--in Nigeria, for example, almost 40 years of war, revolution, and dictatorship have left the country poorer even as it's gotten more crowded--the humiliating awareness of this disparity has grown even faster.
What does this have to do with the attacks? Well, as this column went to press we still didn't know who exactly was responsible. But my suspicion is that the rage that drove the attackers partly had its roots in that sense of Third World disenfranchisement, the stark contrast between their living standards and ours, and the feeling that we don't care.
None of this justifies the attackers' actions, obviously. We must use everything at our disposal to identify and stop these murderers. But in the long term, the U.S. must also confront the problem at its roots and consider what it can do to address the imbalance in living standards. I believe that advanced technology can play a role, albeit in a slightly paradoxical fashion. We should use technology to help strengthen those whose weakness today leads them toward hatred.
Why would we want to help them? Because it's clear that the suffering of the world's poor endangers our security. Kishore Mahbubani, Singapore's ambassador to the United Nations and a member of the Security Council, says that the biggest lesson for him in the tragedy is how interconnected all of our lives have become, for better or worse: "Unfortunately it takes something like this to show how much we are all in this together." In other words, global poverty is a national security risk. That's a scary, seemingly insurmountable problem. But I'm an optimist; I believe that we can do much more about it than we have up to now, and that technology has a big role to play.
Before I go any further, let's acknowledge that technology is not--by any means--a panacea. The hijackers who killed so many innocent people used e-mail extensively in their planning. Internet tools can make moving money easy. And terrorists can use Websites as a new recruitment tool.
Still, the gain in getting technology to people far outweighs the potential danger. For starters, communication is an essential precondition for freedom and democracy. Afghanistan's Taliban leaders know that, which is why they ban television and Internet access. The developing world's first goal in a technology "Marshall Plan" should be to ensure that poor countries have elementary access to communications. Pipelines to the Net are a vital link, but currently there is no fiber-optic pathway to many parts of Africa. Without it, broadband access is essentially impossible. And lack of fiber severely limits the number of people who can use conventional dial-up Internet connections.
But even without the more ephemeral goal of using technology to spread democracy, there's the basic concept of using the stuff to stir economic progress. Properly used, technology in its many guises--from wireless networks to portable computers to speech-recognition software to fuel cells and laser-based water purification systems--can raise living standards and improve quality of life. In sub-Saharan Africa, medics use a Website to catalog meningitis outbreaks and to organize emergency mass vaccinations; in remote island villages on the Gambia River, nurses send digital pictures of patients to doctors in urban centers; and remote villagers on several continents are selling crafts online, which allows them both to maintain cultural traditions and to improve their lot without having to move. We in the Western world are only beginning to figure out the role of technology in outposts like those, but there are encouraging signs that some leaders are becoming more committed to doing it well.
At last year's Okinawa meeting of the G8 developed countries, for example, the Digital Opportunity Task Force, or DOT Force, was created. The goal of the DOT Force is to develop international strategies for bridging the so-called digital divide. The DOT Force has a broad membership--it includes representatives from business (Accenture, for example), governments of several less-developed nations, international organizations like the United Nations Development Program, and nonprofits such as the Internet-focused Markle Foundation.
The group's report (which can be seen at www.dotforce.org/reports) attracted little media attention amid the chaos of this year's G8 meeting in Genoa. Its basic conclusion is simple and clear: Information and communications technology can provide "powerful new tools both for addressing people's basic needs and for enriching the lives of poor people and communities in unprecedented ways." Its recommendations--which the G8 is working to adopt--are compelling. Among them: Every country needs an e-strategy as well as an emphasis on competitive suppliers for a communications infrastructure; creating a technology infrastructure should be a major theme of all development efforts; tech infrastructures should not be considered a cost in such projects but should be seen instead as a means to leverage development; and businesses worldwide should be encouraged to provide volunteers for developing-country technology projects.
I'd like to see the U.S. use this document as a guide for how we dispense foreign aid. Of course, it will have to increase. Foreign aid is now only $9.6 billion, or 0.1% of GNP, vs. the 0.6% of GNP the U.S. granted in 1964. But the DOT Force report suggests we'll get a lot more for our money if we put IT at the center of our efforts. In the mid-1960s, aid seemed a way to fight communism; today it could be seen as as way to fight terrorism.
An added benefit of such a targeted technology development program would be the aid it would indirectly steer to strapped U.S. tech companies. Government grants would help in the research and development of new products appropriate to the developing world. And in the long run there is a real sales opportunity. The underdeveloped world, after all, is home to a huge number of potential new customers. And by helping to build a technology infrastructure, businesses would be helping to ensure the existence of a long-term customer base.
One thing that's become clear to me as I talk to leaders from both industry and governments is that no one thinks that the way to steer technology to the Third World is to give it away. Grants and philanthropy eventually dry up. The only programs with legs are ones that are economically self-sustaining. The key is creating and selling technology that people in developing nations really need. That sounds impossible--just paying for a laptop could take half a decade for many of these people. But if a subsistence farmer can be persuaded that a product or service will help him raise additional produce to sell at a local market, he may also be persuaded that an investment in technology is worth the financial pain.
Bringing technology to the Third World won't be easy. There will be resistance from inside the U.S. and out. But it's a necessity. At a recent FORTUNE conference, former President Bill Clinton talked about America's "interdependence" with the rest of the world. "Those of us who live in countries with wealth and power have a special obligation," he said. We've since learned, all too painfully, just how much risk comes with interdependency. But it's exactly at times like this, when we're in the deepest despair, that we need to accept that risk. Now's the time to do our best to ensure that the technology that has transformed lives in the developed world can help transform the lives of those less fortunate.
DAVID KIRKPATRICK is FORTUNE's senior editor, Internet and technology. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.