The Internet as a Tool for Social Development

Paula Uimonen <>
United Nations Research Institute for Social Development


This paper explores the potential role of the Internet in promoting sustainable and equitable development in Third World countries. Possibilities of using the Internet in a way that will benefit society at large and vulnerable groups in particular are analyzed within the wider framework of actual needs and existing facilities of Third World communities. Among the issues the paper touches upon are the extent to which the Internet is being used and can be adapted to improve education, health, and political processes. The paper assesses the process of social change these initiatives represent and discusses aspects to be considered, including the issues of modern versus traditional communicative practices and the role of language.

The author argues that the Internet can only become a tool for social development if it is applied in a way that addresses the complex challenges of improving the lives of the least-privileged and most-needy millions around the world. Social development here means in improvement in the living standards and general well-being of all members of any given society. Accordingly, if the Internet is to be socially beneficial, it needs to be used for alleviating poverty, improving access to health care and education, conserving and fairly distributing resources, and strengthening participation in decision-making processes. Thus the success of the Internet should be measured less in terms of sheer numbers of connected individuals and more in terms of accessibility and contribution to social progress.

By outlining some of the issues to be considered and analyzing these in a wider global and social context, the author hopes to contribute to dialogue among all involved parties--ranging from Internet users and service providers to decision makers in both public and private sectors--on the issue of social responsibility in the development, application, and usage of the Internet in the Third World.

Keywords: connectivity, cultural issues, development, digital revolution, education, political processes, health, information society, social issues.


The new era

Many people like to think that humankind is at the dawn of a new era, that of an age of enlightened communication. Visions abound on how breakthroughs in digital technology will change the way we live, work, do business, and interact.[1] It is widely believed that the so called information age will bring radical change and improvement, and countries all over the world are busy with constructing the necessary infrastructure, the "information superhighways," in order to meet the challenges of the information society of the twenty-first century.

Although the innovations in digital technology are impressive, we must not forget that technology in itself is not a determinant of change, only a facilitator. As with any other technology, it is the social context within which these new technologies are introduced and, more importantly, implemented, that determines their usage and impact. Accordingly, we are not hopelessly caught in a wave of historical change; we are the ones bringing it about. The information revolution has much less to do with bits and bytes, than it has to do with the realities and aspirations of everyday people.

Given the tools available, it is up to us to determine what type of change will take place and whom it will affect.[2] Are we actually building an all-inclusive "global information society" or a stratified world of information-rich and information-poor? Who will have access to the information society, and who will be left behind? Will only the young, wealthy, educated, computer proficient, and English speaking qualify as members of this new society, and if so, where does this leave the remaining majority of the world population? How can information technology address the many problems the world faces today, a world characterized by widening gaps between rich and poor, inequality, war, and social disruption?[3] Are we actually moving towards a new Renaissance era of enlightenment, or is it likely that we will continue on our current path of marginalization and social disintegration.[4] Are existing disparities being redressed, or are they just reinforced, this time with the addition of information haves and have-nots?

The Internet is playing a very important role in the evolution of digital technology, but although it has seen remarkable growth over the last few years, its dispersion remains highly asymmetric. It is impossible to assess the exact number of users, but present estimates range between 40 million and 60 million, in a total of more than 130 countries worldwide.[5] More growth is expected. At the World Economic Forum in Davos in February 1997, Bill Gates predicted that the Internet will have as many as 500 million users in the next 10 years. The exponential growth of the Internet may sound impressive, but the figures are less dazzling when put into perspective of a world population of over 5 billion. Furthermore, over three-quarters of the computers linked to the Internet are found in the United States; Europe has a smaller fraction and then the emerging economies. Internet users in developing countries only constitute a small percentage of total users. Thus, while an estimated 3.1 percent of the population in high-income countries use the Internet, only 0.0002 percent of the population in low-income countries do so, a multiple factor of approximately 15,000 (ITU, 1995). Although more and more developing countries are getting connected to electronic networks, many of them still do not have full access to the Internet, and, as would be expected, Africa, the poorest continent, is the least connected.[6] There are also differences to access within countries, as most Internet users tend to belong to very narrow social sectors, suggesting that the Internet today is mainly the tool of a transnational "virtual elite."

Thus it is clear that the current distribution of access to the Internet needs to be redressed, especially with regard to the developing world. Furthermore, appropriate tools and applications need to be developed so that all members of all societies can benefit from the digital revolution. As Mr. Nelson Mandela, President of South Africa pointed out at Telecom 95 in Geneva, "If we cannot ensure that this global revolution creates a world-wide information society in which everyone has a stake and can play a part, then it will not have been a revolution at all."[7] In order to do so, a number of critical issues need to be addressed.

Connecting the Third World

It is widely believed that the digital revolution holds many promises for developing countries, allowing them to leapfrog through stages of development and catch up with more developed countries. The idea of joining the global information society is pursued vigorously worldwide, not the least by commercial interests. Appropriate measures to be taken are increasingly on the political agendas at international, regional, and national levels and more international development efforts aim at introducing new information technologies in less-developed parts of the world.[8]

The underlying technological determinism of the above-noted assumptions is, however, highly questionable, and calls for closer scrutiny and analysis. When these technologies are put into the current social context, the picture immediately becomes far more complex and "technological fixes of whatever nature are nothing but a drop of water in the sea of reality."[9] After all, it was not long ago that the Green Revolution was heralded as the solution to world hunger, yet the implementation of these new technologies exacerbated the plight of many of the world's rural poor, largely due to a lack of political will and the contradictory interests of economic forces. [10] In the application of today's new technologies the stakes are even higher, and we must remain on our guard at all times, if we are to avoid falling into the same trap.

When taking a closer look at the actual reality of the Third World, one is impelled to be cautious about the possibilities of radical improvement offered by new information technologies. The many obstacles faced indicate that the investments necessary to catch up with rapidly accelerating technological innovations are enormous. In light of the vast problems developing countries already struggle with, new priorities and strategies would be needed. If the goal is to serve the population at large, such priorities and strategies must be based on realistic assessments and well-thought-out considerations of existing needs and resources.

In most developing countries, telecommunications infrastructure has long been low on the agenda, and other development goals have received higher priority. As a result, the telecommunications infrastructure is often seriously underdeveloped, and the cost of using it is generally more expensive in developing countries than in developed ones. The correlation between wealth and telephone lines is exemplified by the average number of telephone lines per 100 inhabitants being a mere 1.5 in the world's poorest countries, as opposed to 52 in the richest ones (ITU, 1995). In addition to a lack of telephone lines, many developing countries also lack sufficient electricity supplies, especially in rural and remote areas. Unless these problems of basic infrastructure can solved in an imaginative and sustainable way, there is little point in maintaining any illusion about the widespread application of the Internet in developing countries.

A great deal of international pressure is being place on developing countries to liberalize their telecommunications sector. The argument is that privatization and competition will result in better and cheaper services to the population. This pressure for privatization is at times even a condition for development assistance, e.g., by the World Bank and USAID. One should, however, not lose sight of the fact that telecommunications have long been national industries in most developed countries, where they have been considered a public service rather than a profit-making enterprise. Since private telecommunications service providers are profit oriented, they will unlikely be interested in providing access to areas where there are few customers, for example, to remote and sparsely populated areas. Furthermore, public sector telecommunication monopolies provide much-needed revenue for governments in developing countries. And it should be noted that the global telecommunications market is more characteristic of an oligopoly, dominated by a handful of companies, than of open competition.[11] In order to democratically link the entire population, alternatives to rapid liberalization could be pursued more vigorously, including more-efficient public sector telecoms or privatization on a longer-term basis.

The cost of and need for equipment is another important obstacle. Today, the number of PCs per inhabitant is approximately 130 times higher in developed countries than in least developed ones (ITU, 1995). The average cost of a PC and modem, US$2,000, is clearly an astronomical amount of money to most people in developing countries, with an average GNP per capita of US$970, compared to U.S. $16,394 in the industrialized world (UNDP Human Development Report, 1996). Thus, six weeks' salary for a customer in the North is the equivalent of two years' salary in the South. Moreover, this calculation is based on the cost of equipment in the United States, which is generally less expensive than elsewhere in the world. It has been suggested that developing countries can use secondhand or second-generation products instead of state-of-the-art technology. This, however, would have clear deficiencies, as these products tend to be slower and less powerful. What is saved in equipment would instead be spent on telecommunications costs. Moreover, developing countries would then inevitably always trail behind, with out-of-date hardware and software. Such dumping of second-rate equipment would clearly deny any real possibility of leapfrogging.

Another important issue to be considered is the need for human resource development. Since almost half the adult population in the least-developed countries are illiterate, this will take a great deal of time, effort, and above all commitment on behalf of governments and people concerned. Developing countries will need to train their populations in usage and maintenance, as well as development, because, unless the South can develop its own necessary expertise, the existing dependency on the North will continue. Indeed, if the South is to be an active participant in the global information society, technology transfer will need to focus on much more than the South buying products, expertise, and servicing from the North. The technical know-how itself must be obtained through information sharing.

Although Asia is generally seen as a region of economic growth, the use of new information and communication technologies in Asia indicates existing discrepancies between and within countries. The Internet is expected to grow rapidly in the region, possibly reaching an estimated 10 million users by the year 2000. However, most Asian Internet users are found in Japan and the tiger economies of Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan. Dispersion in the rest of the region varies greatly. The examples below illustrate some of the differences in existing infrastructures and development initiatives in Asia:

Regardless of the many obstacles faced, the hard reality is that, given the growing importance of information and communication technologies in the global market, it is virtually impossible for developing countries not to resist resetting some of their priorities if they are to avoid global exclusion. Creating the necessary infrastructure and developing the prerequisite human resources is, however, a daunting task for poor countries, and doing so will necessitate investment that the most needy countries can ill afford. It has, for example, been estimated that the investments necessary to achieve a teledensity of 1 percent in Sub-Saharan Africa would amount to US$27 billion, with the cost of each line being more than three times that of the rest of the world.[15] This represents a massive amount of money to a continent which already has a total debt of US$314 billion. Moreover, the developing world has to turn to its developed counterparts for the necessary equipment as well as expertise, thereby deepening existing dependencies and control. If all these sacrifices are to be worthwhile, it is crucial that socially beneficial applications of these new technologies are pursued.

Applying the Internet

The very nature of the Internet offers many venues for the improvement of people's lives. However, t is important to assess what those needs are if they are to be accurately addressed. Disadvantaged people struggle with basic day-to-day problems of poor health, the lack of education, and the difficulty of making ends meet. According to the UNDP Human Development Report of 1996, only 50 percent of the population in the least developed countries have access to health services, and only 38 percent have access to safe water. Indeed, an estimated 1.3 billion people live in absolute poverty, with an income of only one U.S. dollar per day, and the number keeps growing. These people are not very likely to have PCs and Internet connection, and even so--they cannot eat information, nor does it keep them warm. How can the Internet reach out to these people and help them in their daily struggle?

If the Internet is to become a tool for serving the poor, access by weaker social groups must be assured. This does not necessarily mean individual access. Lack of technical know-how and equipment are fundamental obstacles to Internet access in poor countries and will continue to be so in the foreseeable future. Most people in the Third World will never be able to afford their own PCs, and many countries will not be able to invest in the infrastructure or training required. Although the idea of individual connectivity should be abandoned as an unrealistic goal, alternatives should be explored so as not to reinforce an elite group of information haves.

Therefore, rather than focusing on individual access, we should explore the more socially beneficial community-based access, which is itself an ambitious goal. In fact, in Europe this is how wider access to the Internet is pursued, and a number of countries are establishing public access points at community centers and public libraries. Similar initiatives are taking place in a number of developing countries through, for example, local post offices or commercially run cybercafés. It is also noteworthy that innovative approaches combine modern information technologies with more traditional means of sharing information. In some cases, e-mail messages are printed out and distributed to the recipients, the Internet thus reaching people who may never even have seen a computer.

The Internet is being applied in numerous ways in specific sectors. The following examples illustrate what can be achieved and issues to consider:

Example: health

In the health sector, telemedicine provides a number of advantages for doctors and other medical staff. In the Third World, in particular, access to appropriate expertise for an accurate diagnosis and the treatment of illnesses is often difficult to obtain. While this is particularly true in rural and remote areas, it applies to many urban areas as well. Computerized networks facilitate access to accurate and up-to-date information, enable long-distance training and consultation, and improve the administration of the health sector. Online initiatives addressing health and medicine promote networking among hospitals and health professionals worldwide and provide updates on current medical research.

On the other hand, many health problems in the Third World don't require high-tech solutions. During a recent conference on "Africa and New Information Technologies," a participant pointed out that many of her patients could be cured by such simple remedies as access to clean water. [16] In fact, the lack of clean water and poor hygiene continue to be the biggest health challenges in today's world; only half of the world population has access to safe water. [17] Moreover, although information and education can raise people's awareness of the problems stemming from poor hygiene and unsafe water, information in itself is an insufficient remedy if people lack the means to implement what they learn.

Example: education

The very origin of the Internet is strongly linked to education, as it was in universities and research institutes that electronic networks were initially developed. Such networks have since evolved from the sharing of research findings among scientists and scholars to access to libraries, schools, and universities worldwide. Not only can one find interesting reference material and valuable resources, but increasingly one can also download books and journals, the Internet thus providing a wealth of knowledge at ones finger tips. The Internet also enables alternative teaching methods through virtual classrooms and long-distance education, thus allowing more people to receive education.

While the Internet is in many ways a gateway to the world of learning, the state of education in today's world leaves a lot to desire. Illiteracy rates are still high in many parts of the world; for example, only one child out of two receives primary education in Africa. While governments worldwide are scrambling to construct information superhighways, few of them seem equally willing to invest in more traditional learning methods. All over the world, both in rich and poor countries, educational systems are deteriorating. More and more often, one finds that schools are poorly equipped, classes are overcrowded, and teachers are poorly trained, underpaid, and overworked.[18] With a few notable exceptions, it appears that education is one of the first sectors turned to when savings need to be made in the national budget. Yet it makes little sense to invest in information superhighways while cutting down on one of its prerequisites, namely, solid and adequate education for all.

Example: political processes

The ease with which information can be published and disseminated on the Internet allows for more democratic and participatory political structures. For many years computerized networks have been used to share information on important events, and given today's world of increasing global integration it would appear impossible to stop such information flows. For instance, Chinese students, both overseas and within China itself, were able to communicate through e-mail before, during, and after the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown in Beijing, thus defying heavy government censorship and ensuring a free flow of information.[19] It is also true that the very fact that information is processed, stored, and transmitted in digital form allows for greater surveillance.[20] After all, digital transmissions leave digital trails. Although the creativity that is found among users of the Internet can curb such trailing enterprises, the issues of privacy and personal integrity require further and fuller consideration.

The political concerns of governments will continue to influence the future expansion of the Internet, both in the developed and the developing world. Because of the ease with which information can travel through electronic networks, the Internet is banned or considerably curtailed in many countries. The political concerns underlying these measures are in fact related to some of the inherent contradictions of the modern world order, namely the transnational flows of people, goods, and information in contrast to political administration within the boundaries of nation states.[21] The Internet can serve as a powerful medium for the achievement of social identification, an important aspect of any society. Indeed, in the past more complex social forms have enabled, and in turn been enabled by, increasingly sophisticated communicative tools. [22] While modern media, such as television, can be used to promote national unity, these tools are at times also used for the very opposite purpose-creating social disruption, for example, through racial propaganda.

Countries need to protect their sovereignty and nations have the right to deny content perceived as offensive or undesirable. However, although content can be controlled within a country's borders, the global nature of the Internet makes it difficult to achieve full control. Moreover, the views of the decision makers do not always reflect those of the population at large.

Virtual worlds, cultural gaps

The North American origin of the Internet is evident in the dominant language of the Net as well as the origin of most existing sites. This Anglophone influence in both form and content could be interpreted in terms of cultural dominance, or cultural homogenization, and the Internet could be seen as a vehicle for marketing ideas and values stemming from a very specific and powerful part of the world. [23] Current patterns of distribution and production of content do indeed reflect and reinforce the heavily asymmetrical nature of global communication structures and mass media.[24] Translation software will to some extent remedy this present situation, providing the use of a multitude of languages. And it should not be forgotten that English also serves the function of being a global lingua franca, allowing people of different cultural origin to communicate with one another.

If the Internet is to be a truly multicultural medium, people in the Third World should be encouraged to actively use the Internet and to express themselves not only in their own language but also in their own frame of reference. The fact that only an estimated 5 percent to 10 percent of the content on the Internet is of Asian origin, while the Asian population represents almost half of the world's population, indicates how far the Internet is from truly being culturally diverse. Moreover, it will be important to improve the telecommunications infrastructure between countries in the Third World and promote intraregional communication. In many ways the existing infrastructure reflects interests of global powers, connections to the United States or Europe usually being much better than between neighboring countries.[25]

The sociocultural aspects of the Internet are not restricted to the domains of language and content alone. The Internet symbolizes a specific way of communicating, which is influenced by a number of variables. Some of these are related to its North American origin, reflecting "American" worldviews and styles of social interaction. The Internet is also influenced by the visions of its pioneers, many of whom see the Internet as an empowering tool, allowing more democratic forms of information sharing and more decentralized institutional structures. Mention should also be made of influential online subcultures, such as young computer enthusiasts, hackers, who have developed their own ethics and guidelines for online interaction. We can also talk about cybercultures, a mix of different influences shaped by the world within as well as outside the Internet.[26] As with any other culture, the elements of these cultures are unevenly distributed and change over time, representing patterns of meaning, ideas, and values, rather than being a rigid structure. Yet their influence is clearly visible in many of the characteristics of cyberspace, in both form and content.

The Internet way, or more correctly, ways, of communicating are in many aspects different from traditional means of interacting both in the developed and the developing world, although the contrast is probably sharper with regard to the latter. First, the Internet usually offers a highly individualized means of communicating, as opposed to more collective forms. A traditional village gathering seems very far removed from the communicative practices prevalent on the Net. Second, the interaction is computer mediated as opposed to face-to-face, shaped by the technical tools used. These tools are in many ways restrictive when compared to the richness of face-to-face interaction, although they also allow for new creative forms of interaction. Of course, by being so far removed from the immediate social environment and more traditional forms of interaction, there is a danger of the Internet replacing human contact and leading to social alienation.

It would seem that for many people worldwide this type of computerized interaction would feel not only odd but perhaps also highly undesirable, especially when considering that millions of people have never even used a telephone. In many ways, Internet interaction is too impersonal, virtual rather than real. If the Internet is to be embraced by the majority of the world population, more user-friendly and socially familiar interfaces will need to be developed, better adapted to traditional communicative practices.


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[1] Two of the most influential and widely quoted books on the changes in store are Alvin Toeffler's The Third Wave, 1980, and Nicholas Negroponte's Being Digital, 1995.

[2] Of the many critical analyses of the information society, mention should be made of Herbert Schiller's Information Inequality: Making Information Haves and Have Nots, 1996. Interesting reflections are also found in Clifford Stoll's Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway, 1995.

[3] See UNRISD, States of Disarray: The Social Effects of Globalization, 1995.

[4] See Johan Galtung, On the Social Costs of Modernization: Social Disintegration, Atomie/Anomie, and Social Development, UNRISD, 1995.

[5] The number of connected countries is even higher if other networks are included, such as BITNET and FidoNet, in which case the total number is 186 countries worldwide (Figures taken from: OntheInternet, November/December 1996, p. 50)

[6] International Connectivity, Version 15, 15 June 1996, reproduced in OntheInternet, November/December 1996. Also available at


[8] Some of the most prominent organizations in this field are the World Bank and USAID, pursuing the InfoDev and Leland initiatives, respectively. Canada is also heavily involved, and mention should be made of IDRC's new Acacia initiative, which focuses on the application of information and communication technologies at the grassroots level. UNDP is also starting to incorporate information technology development into its programs.

[9] Juan Rada, "A third world perspective" in Günther Friedrichs and Adam Schaff (eds.) Microelectronics and Society: For Better or for Worse, 1982, p. 216. Quoted in David Lyon, The Information Society: Issues and Illusions, 1988, p. 14.

[10] The new high-yielding varieties of grain introduced during the Green Revolution could be accessed by only farmers with sizable plots, thus excluding many of the less wealthy farmers. Moreover, deleterious side effects resulted from the high concentration of chemicals and fertilizers.

[11] AT&T-Unisource, Global One, Concert and Cable & Wireless dominate over half of the global telecommunications market (paper prepared by Tim Kelly, ITU, for the seminar Telecommunications and Economic Growth, Geneva, October 1996).

[12] Opening address by Singapore's deputy prime minister and minister of defense, Dr. Tony Tan Keng Yam, at the Comdex Asia 96 exposition held on 25 September 1996 in Singapore.

[13] Observations made by the author during fieldwork in 1994.

[14] Phnom Penh Post, 12-15 July 1996.

[15] Pekka Tarjanne, Secretary-General of ITU, Development of Communication and Information Systems in Africa: Challenge and Perspectives, speech given at the seminar "Africa and New Information Technologies," Geneva, October 1996.

[16] Geneva, October 1996.

[17] Nicholas D. Kristof, "Sanitation and Water Ravaging Third World" in the International Herald Tribune, 10 January 1997.

[18] See, for example, a special report on international education in the International Herald Tribune, 19-20 October 1996.

[19] The electronic communication between Chinese students is chronicled in T. Uimonen and E. Ståhle, Electronic Mail on China, 1989.

[20] For a well-thought-out analysis of the role of surveillance in modern society, see Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, 1979.

[21] Anthony Giddens, The Consequences of Modernity, 1990.

[22] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, 1983.

[23] Cees Hamelink, Information and Communication Technologies and Social Development, introductory paper prepared for UNRISD, forthcoming.

[24] Ulf Hannerz, Cultural Complexity: Studies in the Social Organization of Meaning, 1992.

[25] Neal Stephenson follows the laying of the world's longest cable in "Mother Earth, Motherboard," in Wired, December 1996. This cable will improve connections between Europe and Asia, and to some extent within Asia as well.

[26] Sherry Turkle, Life on the Screen. Identity in the Age of the Internet, 1996, and Steve Mizrach, What's Virtual About Virtual Culture? 1995.


The author would like to express her gratitude to the many people who contributed to the writing of this paper. Colleagues at UNRISD, Solon Barraclough, Cynthia Hewitt de Alcantara and Kizito Nsarhaza, shared their observations as well as knowledge on social development issues. Pascal Renaud, UNITAR, shared his long-standing expertise and experiences from Internet development. Christopher Goldstein helped put technological hype into perspective, based on his own work with rural communications projects in developing countries. Insights on the development of the Internet in Asia, and supportive comments and guidelines on the paper itself, were kindly provided by Terho Uimonen. Carol Pina provided much appreciated editorial assistance, and by continuously keeping a sharp eye on interesting material on the world of cyberspace and its links to our social reality she also contributed to the substance of this paper. None of this work would have been possible without the inquisitive mind, technical expertise, and patience of Erik Vought. While the help of all the aforementioned has contributed to the writing of this paper, the author carries sole responsibility for the final result.