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Merging internet with old technologies

by Mohamed V. Muhsin, Vice President and CIO, the world Bank Group- Daily News Mon Sep 1 2003

Keynote address delivered at the Microsoft Government Leaders Summit Redmond, Washington, USA, May 20.

So often we speak about knowledge and information technology as "concepts". This afternoon I want to speak about them as strategies - and even as weapons - in the war on poverty. I will reflect on the challenge of poverty, the prospects for hope, and the knowledge gap; and what citizens, enterprises, and governments are doing, and how we can strengthen this partnership.

There is a long journey ahead of us.

Let's see what challenges us during this journey.

From Brazil to Uganda to India to Bosnia to China, they speak in different languages, but often about the same thing - lack of empowerment and an inability to participate in making decisions that affect their lives.

You have just seen the faces of the poor - faces often of desperation and hopelessness. This is the starting point for our journey today - where poverty is rampant.

A mother in South Asia expresses it so poignantly:

"when my child asks for something to eat, I say rice is cooking. Then I wait, and wait, till she falls asleep from hunger - for there is no rice."

Sri Lankan M.V. Muhsin who is the World Bank’s Vice President and CIO with Microsoft’s Bill Gates at the Microsoft Government Leaders’ Summit.

Her voice is among 60,000 poor men and women that the World Bank listened to, to help us better understand poverty from the perspective of the poor. For after all, these are the stakeholders we all work for.

Over the past few months, we have all been engrossed with images of the war in Iraq - and yet, as World Bank President Jim Wolfensohn put it,

"There is the other war that has been raging for hundreds of years - the War on Poverty".

Waging this war - is the mission of the World Bank, an institution committed to economic development.

Poverty is a fundamental issue of development which affects all of us, and in particular will affect the next generations.

* The reality is that in our world today, half the world's population - 3 billion people - live on less than $ 2 a day; and 1.2 billion people live on less than $ 1 a day.

* And a quarter of a million people are added everyday to our planet - 99% of them in developing countries.

As the numbers of people in the developing world grow, it becomes more critical that we listen and respond to the voices of the poor. They are voices of dignity; voices that say,

"We are assets, not liabilities; we need opportunity, not charity; we need knowledge and know-how to build a better future for us, our countries and the world. Give us opportunity and hope."

The prospect of hope

Delivering on hope can seem like an endless journey! There are many obstacles on the road. And yet, we've already come along way - thanks to the commitment of world leaders in the public and private sectors, including many here today:

Over the past few decades,

* Life expectancy at birth in developing countries increased by 20 years.

* The number of adults in developing countries who are able to read or write has increased by nearly 50%.

* The number of people living in abject poverty - on less than $ 1 a day - has, after rising for centuries, finally begun to fall.

In this process, many lessons have been learned about what succeeds and what fails to bring about sustainable development.

The knowledge gap

Uppermost is that knowledge sparks development

If you look at people living in poverty, you will see that where there is poverty, there is also ignorance; and where there is prosperity, there is also information and knowledge.

The most powerful development tool we may have now is knowledge.

Yet, World Bank President Jim Wolfensohn recently said:

"For the poor, the promise of the new information age - knowledge for all - can seem as remote as a distant star."

How distant is this star? let's step back in time and reflect. It took:

* 100 years for the printing press to reach 50 million people.

* 40 years for the radio to reach as many people;

* And now - in the emergent information age - it has taken only 4 years for the Internet to reach as far.

The primary question then is:

How can we put the rapid cycle world of information technology at the service of the long cycle challenge of global development and reducing poverty?

I believe that information technology can serve the cause of development directly, involving our citizens, through public-private partnerships, and through governments. Information technology can directly affect the lives of citizens and improve their lives.

Here are some examples of how our citizens in villages are using the power of information:

* We saw the image of an elderly widow in a remote and rural village in central India. She had not received her small pension for months. She walked over to the village cycberkiosk, paid five rupees - less than a nickel in US currency. She e-mailed her complaint to the Governor's office. Whereas previously it might have taken months for officials to react and make a visit to the village - within two weeks and official arrived in the village. He discovered that 47 other villagers shared the woman's plight. And the pension payments were paid on the spot!

A farmer in Cote d'Ivoire in West Africa, formerly at the mercy of the Middleman, now goes to a village hut with wireless internet and cell phone access to directly learn market trends and negotiate his own prices.

We see poor villagers in the tea plantations in my country, Sri Lanka, who do not have computers or cell phones, but are logging onto the internet. Yes, I said logging onto the internet without a computer! And how do they do this? They send their handwritten queries to the local community radio station, which in turn, browses the internet and broadcasts the responses.

The point I am making in my last example is that the Internet is not a silver bullet. We need to merge it with old technologies as well.

We still see schools in Africa with ninety children in a class, working 10 to a book and two to a pencil; but also recall - the image of the "Hole in the Wall" computer in the slums of New Delhi, where children were nearly fighting to get to the touch-screen! There is no question that children in the developing world deserve better.

In their own way they convey a message to us: access to information and knowledge is key.


Information technology can also serve the cause of development through public-private partnerships. Let me now dwell a bit on how organisations like the World Bank, Microsoft and other enterprises are productively working together.

At the World Bank, knowledge and information has become as important a currency as money. We see Information Technology - enabled knowledge sharing as a key factor for economic development and growth.

Information and technology components of our portfolio are now approximately $1.5 billion per year. Increasingly Information Technology is central to the Country Assistance Strategies that are jointly developed by our clients and the World Bank. Also, global knowledge, in a substantial way, feeds into the World Bank advisory services.

Our services cover a broad range:

* From the Development Gateway, an internet portal for sharing knowledge globally on development experience;

* To development of an information infrastructure agenda for Uganda and telecommunications reform for Nepal;

* To modernising the civil service in Yemen;

* To providing support to education and health systems in many countries;

* To hands-on e-commerce training for farmers in the Philippines;

* To developing distance learning centres around the world and, through them, connecting decision-makers and partners through learning programs.

For instance, using our global video-conferencing and distance learning network - perhaps the most extensive high speed two-way video network in the world at this time, connecting 125 locations - we hold an average of 50 sessions on a given day. We exchange knowledge and ideas on a wide range of development issues ranging from social safety nets to HIV/AIDS, from financial sector reform to micro credit, and so on. Much of this is "South-to-South" knowledge sharing amongst developing countries. And they also involve top policy makers, Cabinet Ministers and Heads of State.

We recognise the strong contribution that the corporate sector also provides. They range from the Networking Academies of Cisco, to the e-Inclusion program of HP and to the very aggressive human development programs of Microsoft and the Gates Foundation.

For instance, in rural Lebanon, people were drawn to the Microsoft-funded Electronic Library. It is housed in a travelling bus and provides technology access, and services as a mobile classroom and learning centre.

And we warmly welcome the "Partners in learning" initiative that Microsoft announced yesterday - we believe this can make a huge impact on improving education in developing countries.

These examples demonstrate corporate leadership and responsibility. They also open our minds to the myriad of business and investment opportunities that exist to donors and to the corporate world. For sure corporations have a profit motivation, but as we have seen, they also want to do the right thing by the community. And more needs to be done to address the needs of the poor - to invest in technologies that will make an impact at the grass roots level; for example, wireless where there is no fixed line access, voice interfaces for those who cannot read, and software that relates to indigenous cultures and languages.

Governments and Information Technology

We have seen how people are harnessing information technology in the villages and cities. We have seen what organisations like the World Bank and the private sector are doing to help. So now, let me turn to the area of government leadership to promote the use of Information Technology for development.

You have, over the last two days, learned of the importance of government leadership putting in place an enabling environment. The term "enabling environment" can mean different things to different people - can even sound like World Bank jardon! - but in the context of the knowledge economy, I submit that it means:

* First, the right policies to enable an information infrastructure - telecommunications, applications, and systems;

* Second - a commitment to institutional reforms and educating the population at all levels, for life-long learning;

* Third, a climate that builds a strong partnership between the government, the private sector, and civil society;

* And above all - leadership that believes in and understands the power of information technology.

The State of Andhra Pradesh in India, illustrates my first point - where an extensive information infrastructure has been put in place. Government offices - from the smallest to the largest have been computerised. Now, citizens can go online and pay taxes and bills, get birth and death certificates, take care of land registry, permits, and licences easily. More importantly they are able to by-pass the huge bureaucracy and avoid corruption!

My second point, namely a commitment to educate the population, takes me to Turkey, where under a comprehensive education project, computerisation is being extended to grades one through eight. It will provide up to 5,000 information technology classrooms, the bulk of that in rural schools. My third point - a public-private partnership - is well illustrated by the Government of Chile. In the late 1980s, Chile privatised the telecommunications market and created an access fund. The result - fixed and mobile phone lines multiplied tenfold, and today more than 70 percent of household have a telephone. And installation of payphones has extended phone service to virtually all Chileans.

And my fourth point - belief in the power of Information Technology - is perhaps best illustrated by some countries coming out of civil conflict such as Rwanda, East Timor, Bosnia and Sri Lanka. With the devastation they have faced and the desperation they feel, they have no option but to use Information Technology as a key strategy to jump-start the economy.

For example, as Afghanistan emerged from the war, one of the first things World Bank President Jim Wolfensohn did when he met with President Karzai, was to offer him a distance learning center. Some people thought this was a crazy offer, when there were so many other needs. But President Karzai was so excited. He recognised the power and the potential of technology-enabled learning. Today we have a satellite based distance learning and video conferencing center in Kabul.

It connects Afghans, helps them to share ideas, and transact business globally. With this, the first ever robust government e-mail system was also put in place - of course - using Microsoft Exchange! but having e-mail is not the end of my Afghan story. There was a time when the only way money was transported for banking was in suitcases, underescort, to Dubai! Now, there is an electronic money transfer system in place. As nice as all this sounds, putting Information Technology to work in developing a country, needs serious commitment on the part of leaders.

It is up to us

In drawing our conclusions I can do no better than to echo Bill Gates who in his book "Business" @the Speed of Thought" advocates that digital tools magnify the abilities that make us unique in the world: the ability to think, the ability to articulate our thoughts, the ability to work together to act on those thoughts. If we empower our people to solve problems and give them potent tools to do this with, they will amaze us with their creativity and initiative.

We then come to the really hard question: Who's going to do all of this? Who amongst the global community will make this work? How will the bridges be built across the digital divide?

The answer lies in a story that I will tell you. It is the story of some mischievous young boys who set out to embarrass the village wise man.

They wanted to prove that the old man was just as foolish as all the others. They went to him with a small bird, held cupped in their hands, behind their backs; and they asked if it was dead or alive. If he said it was dead, they would let the bird fly; if he said it was alive, they'd wring its neck and kill it. One way or another, the old man had to lose!

"Old man," they said, "is the bird dead or alive?"

The old man looked them in the eye and said quite seriously, "the power is in your hands".

Who will bring knowledge and Information Technology to ignite economic development where we now have poverty? The answer is the same as that given by the old man:

"Ladies and Gentlemen, that power is in our hands".