Cyber-rich vow to aid offline nations

Japan will kick off tomorrow's G-8 summit with an offer of $15 billion in technology help for developing nations.

Once upon a time, aid to the developing world meant building schools, digging wells, and improving agricultural output.

Instead, tomorrow's Peace Corps volunteer is more likely to be a young graduate who can set up a cybercafe in a remote African village than one who can teach people to irrigate crops.

At the G-8 summit to begin here tomorrow, Japan's leaders are placing the yawning gap between the Information Age haves and have-nots at the top of the agenda of the annual meeting of the world's richest nations.

In a bid to bridge what is becoming known as the "digital divide," Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori plans to announce Japan's intention to give $15 billion and train a force of 10,000 technicians over the next five years to help poorer countries catch up to a wired - and wireless - global economy.

The initiative comes at a time when several international groups as well as the United Nations secretary-general are pressing the leaders of some of the world's wealthiest economies - Russia later was invited to join the US, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan - to forgive loans to heavily indebted countries which look unlikely to ever extricate themselves from the red.

That issue, in addition to strategies to improve education and prevent infectious diseases, will be key topics of discussion during the three-day summit to begin Friday on this chain of islands in the south of Japan. But the issue to which Japan seems eager to attract the most hits, so to speak, is the great and growing cyber-chasm - something many critics find surprising since Japan itself is lagging behind some industrialized nations in Internet development and personal computer use.

Others question whether governments should be getting involved in a market driven by private entrepreneurship - and one that seems to do swimmingly when left to its own devices.

"The purpose of this initiative is to set the pace, as the country holding the G-8 chair, to show Japan's willingness and determination to address this important area," says Ryuichiro Yamazaki, the press secretary of Japan's Foreign Ministry. He would not say whether Japan will ask the other nations to make similar commitments. "We're trying to set an example, but it's up to the other countries to do what they see fit."

In addition to discussing ways to narrow the technology gap, the leaders are also slated to discuss international rules regarding electronic commerce, protection of consumer benefits, and privacy laws. They will also discuss Internet taxation policy, a complex issue since goods can now be made in one country, bought in cyberspace, and delivered in another country.

Some Internet companies, Japanese officials complain, aren't paying taxes at all.

For its part, Japan is promising to pour funds into building IT (information technology) infrastructure in developing countries, training an IT-savvy labor pool of some 10,000 experts, and implementing IT in development assistance.

In comparison to last year's summit, still focused on events in Kosovo and global economic crises, this year's G-8 arrives at a time of relative political and economic stability: Currency markets have steadied, many Asian economies have rebounded, and North and South Korea have signed a historic reconciliation agreement. Japan says it is an opportune time to address what can be done to prevent the world's poorest countries from being left further behind in the Information Revolution swiftly altering everyday life in the wealthiest nations.

While there are 147.48 million Internet users in the US and Canada, and another 91.82 million in Europe, only 2.77 million on the vast African continent have ever been online, according to the June 2000 survey on Internet users by Nua Internet Surveys. In the Middle East, only 1.9 million people surf the Web. Much of that is not due to complete unavailability, but prohibitive costs. According to a United Nations study, it costs $10.50 an hour to use the Internet in Chad, where the average yearly income is $187.

Africa's online rates

"In the African continent, with a lack of resources and a low standard of living, the average access fees to the Internet for less than a day of connection are eight times higher than in the United States, almost five times higher than in France, and four times higher than in the United Kingdom," says Aladji Amadou Thiam, Senegal's ambassador to Japan. He says that developing nations hope the G-8 countries will agree to set up an IT-related "trust fund" within the World Bank as a way to forgive debts while spreading the high-tech wealth to build what he called an "Africa Net."

"Information technology needs to have a human face to achieve the ultimate goal of mankind's development," says Mr. Thiam. "The means are available to achieve that goal, thanks to IT. But is there enough will to do so?"

Will or no, countries missing out on the digital boon are demanding solutions. In an unprecedented move, some of the G-8 leaders will meet today with leaders from four developing nations - representatives from the larger and poorer G-77 - to discuss what can be done to bring the world's nascent economies up to speed.

The concept of Tokyo taking the lead on spreading IT to the masses has met with many raised eyebrows here, since Internet use through personal computers has not caught on as a must-have phenomenon in Japan. For that, the US has blamed astronomical connection rates; trade officials for both countries reached a compromise deal Tuesday to bring them lower. Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corp., Japan's largest telephone company and a former government monopoly, says it will cut the rate it charges foreign carriers to connect by an average of 35 percent over the next two years to help open Japan's $130 billion telecommunications market.

But business executives say Japan still doesn't have a computer-friendly legal system that would help promote e-commerce. Almost all legal transactions are required to be made on paper, a simple stockholders' meeting has to be announced by "snail mail," and most government application forms must be handwritten.

"We have senseless regulations that are hindering the proliferation of electronic technologies," says Mitsuru Shinozaki, a spokesman for the influential Japan Federation of Economic Organizations, or Keidanren, which is urging Mori to pass reforms.

Instead of the personal computer and its alphabet-oriented keyboard - hardly practical for Japanese kangi, or pictographs - Japanese consumers seem to be cleaving instead to the next-generation mobile phones, with built-in Internet access. Lighter, cheaper, and more portable, the i-mode phone being developed by partially state-owned NTT DoCoMo is Japan's great hope for a comeback in the new economy.

And the phone, as some here see it, can be much more easily exported to developing countries, where many consumers could manage to spring for a mobile phone but not a laptop computer. Going wireless, some argue, could be a way to help to overcome the costs of laying phone lines in countries that have few of them and vast distances between populations.

Sharing the wireless wealth

Technology is catching on. Once a regional high-tech power is created, it can begin to support "satellite" countries nearby - a role Japan hopes it can play for developing countries in Asia. Kiyohisa Ota, senior analyst at Merrill Lynch Japan, says that IT power centers will "colonize" their neighbors by playing host to their communications networks.

But that will only happen when a country hits its "data wave" - a point when 70 percent of its economy uses personal computers. The US is already there, but Japan is not. "The quicker the data wave occurs in a country," he says, "the more quickly it can absorb other regions or colonize them."

Colonize the developing world? The very word conjures images of the "Great Game" played by the 19th- and 20th-century powers primarily interested in their own profits - many of them the same 21st-century players who will sit around the summit table Friday through Sunday.

"This is at their [developing nations'] request," says Nagaaki Ohyama of the Tokyo Institute of Technology, a member of Prime Minister Mori's high-tech advisory panel. "The starting point is to give others the same opportunity, so they don't fall too far behind. This will be their big chance to catch up."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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