Poor Nations Leapfrog to Future Via New Technologies

A teacher in a remote school logs on to a computer, accesses an American university, and downloads a biology file. An agricultural field agent combating a banana blight turns to a French database half a world away. A government administrator holds a video conference call with staff scattered across an area the size of Texas.

These are not the kind of images one usually thinks of when considering the developing world, where in some countries making a phone call across town can be the day's major achievement.

Here in some of the poorest spots on earth advanced communications technology is just now starting to gain a toehold. It is bypassing barriers to development such as tangled telephone systems, crumbling roads, and bureaucrat blockages to reach schools, health clinics, and remote areas, bringing them in touch with each other and the rest of the world.

"There is an absolute need for us to lay our hands on state-of-the-art technology that will allow us to do a bit of catch-up ... with the developed world," said Nat Tanoh, an adviser to Ghana's minister of communications.

Dr. Tanoh and representatives from 39 other developing countries met last week at the Information Society and Development Conference in Midrand, South Africa. The conference, which grew out of a similar meeting of leading industrialized nations last year in Brussels, was meant to explore how to bring the developing world into what has been dubbed the global information society.

Speaking at the Group of Seven Brussels conference last year, South African Executive Deputy President Thabo Mbeki reminded the developed world that that "half of humanity has never made a telephone call."

To help struggling countries find that path to development, more than 100 companies from 10 countries displayed at an exhibition at this year's conference everything from satellites to low-cost cell phones.

In Ghana, where only 3 in every 1,000 people have a telephone, according to the World Bank, Tanoh says the country's leaders have signed an agreement with a company that will bring video, radio, and limited computer technology to people all over the country.

The system, known as WorldSpace, will have stationary satellites over Africa, Latin America, and Asia beaming signals to specially made compact radios fitted with video screens that also allow for limited computer data transfer.

About the size of a paperback book, the solar-powered radio could provide high-quality sound and computer images to up to 4 billion people once the whole system is on line in 1999, according to company officials. They stress that education and news will be the main applications, but say commercial and religious organizations have expressed interest as well.

"This is a radical solution to Ghana's problems of informing, educating, and healing our people," said Tanoh. "People in my country are poor; no one in the countryside can afford a TV, but this [solar-powered radio] at $50 is cheap; it democratizes the airways," he said.

South Africa, one of the only developing countries displaying at the exhibit, has already started programs aimed at tying the country together onto a common information network. It's jumping over infrastructure problems such as inadequate phone lines in packed black townships and the absence of phones and electricity in rural areas.

Nebo Legoabe, a community-information specialist at the Pretoria-based Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, says her organization is developing a system that will put remote schools and communities on the Internet.

The system - which requires a light-weight antenna, a phone (but no phone line), and a computer - would allow a teacher, for example, to call up lesson plans for an eighth-grade biology class from the Ministry of Education. Officials of the South African telephone company Telkom say this system is much cheaper than running cables to remote sites and can be put into place in days rather than years.

One Israel-based company has started offering primary and adult education via satellite in rural areas of South Africa and is looking to expand into Uganda and Nigeria, according to Dana Smit, managing director of the company, Ubuntu.

Mr. Smit's company, which franchises the systems, recently sold one to a man in the rural town of Nkowakowa, a place with no electricity or telephone lines in South Africa's Northern province, for about $12,000. The man in turn offers classes ranging from fourth-grade math to business skills, charging about $90 for 30, one-hour sessions. Although this system is purely commercial, Smit says the South African government has expressed interest in subsidizing the costs to the users.

Exhibitors and some government representatives here worry, however, about trying to implement such advanced systems in countries that want to keep infrastructure in the hands of inefficient state bureaucracies. "The cost required to rehabilitate the communications infrastructure in most developing countries can never be paid for by the public sector," said Wade Warren, the telecommunications program manager for the United States Agency for International Development in southern Africa.

But it is not just free-market developed countries pushing the idea of privatization. Some developing-world leaders also advise it in exchange for first-rate communications.

"In 1985, our telecommunications system was government-owned and about as bad as you can imagine," said Prime Minister Denzil Douglas of the Caribbean nation of St. Kitts-Nevis.

"Now our system is privatized. The rates to the consumer are a bit higher, but we have a very advanced fiber-optic system, and 60 percent of our schools have access to the Internet. Unless a country can provide a modern system, I would advise them to take it out of the state's hands and put it into the private sector," Dr. Douglas said.

But it's not such an easy task to give up an asset that provides sorely needed income to the state, no matter how inefficient, as one Tanzanian government official confided.

"Everyone around here is talking about getting onto the Internet," said the official, who requested anonymity. "In my country, you can barely make a call across town, much less log on to the Internet. Of course, we have to privatize, there is no choice. But a lot of people in Tanzania would rather see the state maintain the system."

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