High-tech lets 3rd world outdo West in key skills

Three American companies, Rockwell Collins of Seattle, Scientific Atlanta, and China Tech in Atlanta are involved in a joint venture to build an earth satellite network around mainland China. Simultaneously, Taiwanese technicians have begun test-driving a solar-powered vehicle that could reduce fuel consumption on their island nation.

These are signs of technological ``leapfrogging'' -- developments in parts of the third world that are actually vaulting over the capabilities of developed Western nations.

``To some extent, time is on the side of young nations,'' declares Jose Dans Jr., communications minister in the Philippines. ``The young nations today note the progress, in leaps and bounds, of their older brothers.''

This technological transformation is taking relatively few years, compared with the decades, or even centuries, it took the West to reach this stage. By using fiber optics, for example, developing nations -- particularly those in East Asia -- have been able to acquire telecommunications that are superior to those of nations with industrial-era telephone equipment.

High-tech is having its greatest impact on the third world in rural areas, says Mohan Munasinghe, special adviser to the president of Sri Lanka and director of much of the World Bank's energy program.

``If we want to see some orderly progression in technology around the third world, let's look at how agriculture, public health, and energy use can fit into a scenario,'' Dr. Munasinghe says. ``People in rural parts of a country are better equipped to adapt technology than we once believed.''

Well-managed technologies, moreover, can increase livestock production, predict climate conditions, and maximize plant growth cycles. Even countries successful in farming -- the United States, Canada, Australia, those in the European Community, for instance -- are locked into oil-based agriculture and are dependent upon chemical pesticides.

And biotechnology appears to be helping developing nations with new crops, manufacturing processes, and disease eradication.

But the rush to high-tech in the third world is not without its problems.

``The advent of telecommunications in a developing country is dramatic,'' says Dr. Godwin Chu at the East-West Center in Hawaii. ``There is not enough time to study reactions, to see how people change views about themselves and their lives.''

A West African diplomat explains another dimension of the problem: ``Right now, if we import more machines for our light industry, it will lose jobs. Then everything we have worked for may go topsy-turvy. But the pressures are strong to move to electronics and the rest, if only because your neighbor is doing so.''

Marvin Cetron, president of Forecasting International in Arlington, Va., says technological leapfrogging ``can accelerate gaps between third and fourth worlds,'' where ``not even natural resources are available to spawn development.''

Jacques Lesourne, a professor at Conservatoire National des Arts et M'etiers, Paris, warns that countries which ``progress beyond a certain threshold'' will score social and economic gains, but that less developed nations could ``drop more and more behind'' in the technology race.

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