WAYS IN WHICH DEVELOPPING COUNTRIES COULD BENEFIT FROM INTERNET

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WAYS IN WHICH DEVELOPPING COUNTRIES COULD BENEFIT FROM INTERNET

Pascal Renaud
ORSTOM associé à l’UNITAR,

UNITAR, Palais des Nations, 1211 Genève 10, Suisse
Tel: +41 22 798 58 50
Fax: +41 22 733 13 83
E-mail: renaud@orstom.fr


ABSTRACT

Internet is increasing both in number of computers linked and in surface (geographic extension). Developing countries are not completely outside this phenomenon. If den-sity remains very low, the increase is nowadays higher than in the North.

This paper surveys the situation of developing countries focusing Africa. The aim is to study in which terms free access to information will give new opportunities to re-search teams. What are the stakes for the African scientific community and which strategy has to be set in order to help it to join the global network.

The same dynamic way that joins universities and research centers is noted both in the development of academic networks in the North and succeeded experiments of the South. Starting with this approach, we try to highlight which types of action the inter-national cooperation must support in priority in order to make Internet an efficient tool to boost scientific and technology research, necessary basis for developpment.

KEYWORDS

Internet, Developping countries, Computer Network, Academic and Research Net-work

1.AN ENCOURAGING EVOLUTION

The tumultuous entry of the commercial sector on Internet has increased the number of individuals having access to the network. However, the main incentive of its geo-graphic expansion remains the realm of research. Almost all countries are currently connected, save some thirty, mainly African countries, which remain totally foreign to the international network. These are the less advanced and the most isolated countries of the international community.

The latest statistics published by Internet Society show that the growth rate of Internet is significantly greater in the South than in the North, namely in Africa. While this rate is decreasing in North-America, a second surge of countries makes its entry in the Net-work of networks. These are essentially countries with an intermediary income, or “emerging” countries, from Latin America or from Eastern Europe.

However, if these figures seem encouraging, we should not forget the shocking con-trast between South and North, with regard to equipment. The accumulated delay is such, that the number of computers installed in the South is progressing less than in the North. What is the impact of a thousand computers connected to Internet in a country like China, in comparison with the four millions located in the United States ? The origins of this difference are partly found in the levels of development. The po-litical, economic and military strategy of the great powers has considerably slowed down dissemination of computer science techniques. Less than five years ago, most hardware and software used for Internet were considered as “sensitive technologies”. For instance, the United States Defense Department has severely restricted the export of work stations representing the nodes of the network and of the modems essential to data transfer.

This shortage of material does not discourage the South from striving to possess the technology of information highways. On the contrary, existing means are intensely used, a fact which is not reflected by the gross figures. Each access point to Internet becomes a precious resource. In Tunis or Lima, all computers linked to the network are used, which is far from being the case in Germany or in the Unites States. More-over, a PC of the poorest quality will accommodate dozens of mailboxes which are successively consulted by users. This adjustment of Internet techniques is particularly striking in Latin America and in Eastern Europe, where it is coupled – more than any-where else – with a cultural approval. Internet is far from being confined to the “Brit-ish/ American” culture, as feared by some. Currently, Internet can be used in numerous languages: Spanish[4], Portuguese[5], Russian[6], Japanese[7]…

In the South, the best example of this double adjustment is given by the countries of the Andes. In 1991, not a single Internet connection or research network existed in these countries. At present, almost all universities are inter-connected and benefit from all interactive services, namely from World Wide Web. When we wander on servers from Peru, Ecuador or Bolivia, apart from a home page in English, this lan-guage is more difficult to find here than on French Web servers.

2.AFRICA

Africa is not excluded from “Cyberspace”. Undeniably, some fifteen countries remain entirely absent from Internet, however, if we consider the progress of projects and the success of information highways in the academic, cultural and economic fields, only five or six will remain absent in 1996. In spite of poorly developed telecommunication infrastructures (less than a hundred per cent of the population is served by telephone lines[2]), several projects have been committed since 1990 – developed by international cooperation institutions: ORSTOM, UNESCO, CRDI, UNCEA, AUPELF, Green-net[ 3]…- and have enabled some of the “less advanced” countries to take their first steps on the global network. A total of several hundred institutions, namely universi-ties, are the beneficiaries.

This association of Africa to “Cyberspace” remains modest and services are generally reduced to the exchange of electronic mail. The cost of telecommunication is too high and thus the use of Internet cannot become generalised within the research and aca-demic community. A typical problem in the developing countries is the scarcity of users, resulting in a deficient use of “specialised connections”. The benefit of the latter, as experienced in the North, is the setting in motion of an advantageous cycle, thanks to moderate lump sum costs. However, within institutions where a single telephone line is shared between fifty professors, researchers and ten administrative officers, Internet technology allows each of them to open their own mailbox. This service will grant them close contact with the international scientific community. In this way, the hierarchic control used by some to distribute “favours” through access to telephone or fax lines is progressively disappearing.

3.INTERESTS AT STAKE

Diffusion of “information highways” technologies in the realm of academic training and research in Southern countries is far from being a gadget. “If reliable and unlimit-ed access to Internet was available in Yaoundé, I would prefer to work in my country, even if I was payed three times less than European researchers”, a researcher from Cameroon who had just finished his PhD in France recently declared. This point of view, shared by many scientists, outlines one of the Internet issues at stake in the South. This does not involve a miracle remedy or a short cut on the road to develop-ment, but a real possibility to restrict intellectual defection.

In countries where academic libraries or documentation centers – save foreign cultural or scientific agencies – are not available, Internet would radically transform work con-ditions for researchers. For the first time, the poorest countries, or those with the less advanced technology, could have access to all the wealth of information available in research centres and in the most advanced universities from the North. This does not only imply consulting documentary banks and encyclopedia, or visiting virtual muse-ums. Internet is the privileged and exclusive means of access to current scientific ma-terial: thesis and research reports, laboratory programmes and team formation… A second concern is developing here. In an interconnected scientific world, those who remain on the side take the risk of proceeding from marginality to total exclusion. Be-yond maintaining the status quo, Internet bears the possibility for the South to have access to information sources under the same conditions as in the North.

More straightforwardly, without erasing the borders of marginalisation (Africa pro-duces less than 3% of the global scientific production), the latter can be modified by new communication techniques. It could be presumptuous to predict the effect of es-tablishing direct relationships between researchers from the South and the North or their joint participation to international debates. Comparably, it would be unwise to negate their impact a priori.

4.TECHNOLOGICAL MASTERING : A NECESSITY

One should not rely on illusions, however. In the United States, the development of inter-academic information networks was initiated at the end of 1970, and by 1983[9], the current version of Internet was established on a reduced scale. Ten more years were necessary to see the emergence of very accessible tools such as WWW and e-mail, and the generalisation of their use. Some would like to make us believe that in consid-eration of the availability of high flow international connections (satellites and sub-marine cables) Africa should shortly become linked to Cyberspace (Iridium Project, Globalstar…). The logic of technological “parachuting” implied by this approach has never permitted the genuine development of the beneficiaries of the aid.

African universities are already experiencing serious difficulties in settling their cur-rent telephone invoices: they lack the means of paying international telephone lines as well as regional ones. Co-financing these connections, which is being proposed or im-plemented by various agencies, can only become an asset to development if it is in-cluded in a larger strategic framework. Indeed, the objective of Internet cannot be reduced to the mere opening of “multimedia kiosks”, implying linear information ser-vices, where users are restricted to the role of telematics services consumers.

The “solutions” proposed at national and regional level are liable to have the same lim-itations. Thus the long overdue question which we should have asked ourselves is: to whom would the “Backbones” and other “Infoports” benefit, if, in the field, scientific institutions do not have the competence and the equipment to get connected ?

Indeed, local branching is the foundation of any network setting. In the United States as well as in Europe, research information networks have initially been launched as an association of campus networks where the users played the role of information con-sumers and producers at the same time. The South, like the North, cannot disregard the devising of “local” networks which would nourish and develop their networks of competencies. Beyond access to information, a major issue at stake is data production and mastering of contents.

Why ease the flow of information if this would only prolong the circumstances under which the bulk of African scientific production – scientific periodicals or data gathered in the field – would be published in Europe or in the Unites States ? The regain of these contents is an essential step in order to allow the African scientific community to assert and define its own objectives. Internet technology can contribute to this process by of-fering important capacities of diffusion while requiring minimal investments. Its im-pact would be even more important if this “militant” effort to master contents remains independent of information marketing, out of the reach of major scientific publishing multimedia groups.

Nonetheless, the implementation of associative networks requires substantive tech-nology transfer. This implies a longer and less spectacular process in comparison to demonstrations of interactive multimedia in Dakar or Cotonou. This transfer is not based on selling ready made solutions, but on a long term collaboration between in-stitutions from North and South and among establishments from the South. By what means, however, should cooperation agencies be persuaded that Internet can be a chance for the South, provided that a profitable technological and scientific potential is aroused in these countries ? How to convince beneficiaries that the most effective material can only become constructive in their countries to the extent that it integrates a scientific environment prepared to receive it ?

5.THE INTERNATIONAL CONTEXT

The present context of international aid reduction promotes short term initiatives which have better media coverage and are less costly. At the same time, the strong wave of liberalism supported namely by the World Bank, encourages States to aban-don their control of telecommunication operators and to promote their privatization. Private financing is considered to progressively replace grants and international aid. In the North, Internet was built thanks to public financing, namely in the Unites States, where long distance infrastructures were funded by the “National Science Founda-tion”. On the other hand, in most deprived countries Internet should be financed by the private sector. This is one of the approaches proposed by international pro-grammes, in order to “help developing countries to fully integrate information eco-nomics”.

In several African countries, commercial operators supported by foreign operators (B.T. in Ghana[10], Compuserve in Gambia), are attempting the implementation of kiosks, the beneficiaries – clients – of which are multinational companies. It is certain that offering new reliable and inexpensive international telecommunication services can only promote North/South commercial relations, without modifying the terms of the exchange. The misgiving of such an approach could be the restriction of new tech-nology benefits usually profitable to solvent clients. The more a country is economi-cally deprived, the more foreigners appear to comprise this clientele. If this policy is not associated with more voluntary action towards non-commercial sectors, namely with regard to training, its capacity to bridge the significant gap between “those who belong and those who do not belong to the information community”[11], is only very weak.

6.THE ASSOCIATIVE APPROACH

A different approach, neither public nor private, has been followed successfully by the Peruvians. In 1991, at the incentive of a scholar, José Soriano, the association “Red Ci-entifica Peruana”[12], gathering universities, non-governmental organisations, re-search centers (public and private) and hospitals, has been created in order to set in motion Internet access infrastructures. Each establishment has contributed financially to the implementation of an inter-connection and training center, which was opened despite scanty means. An intensive awareness operation was undertaken in order to convince decision-makers to integrate the project and to “test” the proposed services: mainly e-mail and electronic forums. In 1993, the obtained means permitted the instal-lation of a first permanent satellite connection (64 kbs). At present, the flow has in-creased eight-fold and the network is still spreading. Today, it is comprised of 263 institutions. This project, which benefited almost not at all from international support, or from national contributions, is a complete success in one of the most underdevel-oped countries with regard to telecommunication infrastructures (three telephone lines per hundred inhabitants).

Another “success story” was experienced in Zambia (nine telephone lines per thou-sand inhabitants). Since 1990, at the initiative of Professor Mark Benett, several per-sonal computers were exchanging, daily, electronic messages – via modem – with Rhodes University, and through this rudimentary connection, with the global net-work. Internet technologies have swiftly been included in training curricula, while im-portant training undertakings for technical teams as well as awareness sessions for decision-makers have been organised. In 1994, means were secured for the creation of an academic association, “Zamnet”, capable of managing the network. By the end of the same year, a permanent connection was established with South Africa, offering ac-cess to the whole set of Internet services[13].

In Africa, such potential exists in almost all countries. Several meetings were held in Dakar, at the incentive of the Engineers School (ENSP), the University and ORSTOM, in order to coordinate technical initiatives. The technical school of Yaoundé – famous for having created a breeding-ground of high technology companies – is attempting to federate francophone initiatives (RIO) as well as anglophone ones (Healthnet, Green-net). In 1994, 51 African researchers and professors coming from 16 countries made a commitment to promote Internet development, namely through the implementation of “theoretic and practical training to new communication tools within programmes which are part of subjects under their responsibility”. This action requires a pledge from the signatories.

7.CONCLUSION

Having been an academic technology for non-commercial purposes, Internet has be-come a promising market. Despite their meagre income, developing countries repre-sent a clientele for computers and telecommunications multinational companies. Countries joining the global network with some delay or more slowly, will shortly be solicited to equip themselves with most modern and expensive systems. Here, com-mercial Internet may well develop before the “research-education” network, on the very grounds of foreign technologies import. This would imply opposite chronologi-cal conditions in comparison to the North. Universities would not have time to train engineers and researchers capable to manage the network. Often, they encounter dif-ficulties in connecting to an excessively costly service. Under such circumstances, it is feared that results can also be reversed. Instead of re-activating sciences and tech-niques, Internet would generate a new long-term dependence vis-à-vis countries mas-tering these technologies.

The experience of Peru and Zambia demonstrates that a different approach is possible. If such a strategy appears to be more slow and difficult, it is because it follows the strenuous route of development. Whether dream vendors like it or not, this is the most secure and the shortest road to reach this objective.

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