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LineartThe Internet Society and Developing Countries

By George Sadowsky

All countries of the world are faced with substantial numbers of major challenges. Among them are the provision for their inhabitants of good health, adequate education, opportunities for advancement, adequate housing, employment, sufficient income to meet material needs, a sense of personal security within the law, and a sense of security as a nation. Although individual countries may disagree about how to go about achieving those goals, there is agreement in a general sense about what the goals should be.

Rapid expansion of the Internet holds substantial promise for developing nations, which can benefit greatly from the Internet's communication and information delivery capabilities to help meet these needs. The accelerating transition of information to electronic media is making information resources of the world available to an increasingly global audience through the Internet. Developing countries have much to gain from that revolution in communication and information access. In contrast to the situation in the developed world, where transport and communications infrastructures for delivery of both physical goods and information services are well established, the alternatives available within developing countries are generally slow, expensive, or nonexistent.

The communications and information delivery capability of the Internet serves all sectors of society. The areas of education, health, social policy, commerce and trade, government, agriculture, communications, and science and technology all benefit from Internet access to information and to individuals through electronic mail. These two resources are interlinked and synergistic: individuals can visit and exploit relevant information sources, which often point to additional sources of information and to knowledgeable individuals.

The correlation between information, communication, and economic growth is well-known, making the usefulness of networks nearly self-evident. Electronic networking is a powerful, rapid, and inexpensive way to communicate and to exchange information. When networks are available, previously unanticipated collaboration seems to come into being almost spontaneously. The underlying cause seems to involve a latent demand that remains latent as long as joint work requires either the disruption of waiting for the mail, the continual retyping of texts transmitted by mail or fax, or the need to secure large budgets and approvals for extensive international travel.

Networking is now crucial to scientific research and development efforts, many of which yield tangible economic benefits. Commercial economic growth is enhanced by access to information and improved contact with support and purchasing personnel as well as customers. Access to electronic networks also improves the effectiveness of the development community, comprising representatives of international agencies, nongovernmental organization staff, and others working locally and abroad. In addition, many developing-country universities are focusing on curricula that might contribute more directly to economic growth, and network connections for administrators, professors, and students will be increasingly important.

Finally, as has been demonstrated in a number of countries recently, the link between the free flow of information and movement toward democratization cannot be downplayed. Access to information affects political democratization efforts at the global level as well as within nations. In developing countries where much of the media is controlled by the state and individual access to networks is currently limited, the need to decentralize control over information and over networks themselves is clear.

Developing Countries and Development

What's a developing country?

A major difficulty in discussing the application of computing technology in developing countries is that such countries as a group are quite heterogeneous. Developing countries differ widely in both the extent to which they have introduced computer and networking technology and the extent to which the necessary infrastructure exists for exploiting the technology. As a consequence, for almost any statement one can make on this subject, there is highly likely to be a group of countries for which it may be either not meaningful or not applicable.

A number of different criteria exist for defining whether a country is considered a developing country or not. The definitions usually have to do with the country's right to receive development aid under the rules of a multilateral or bilateral agency. A few countries have been classified by one agency as developing and by another agency as developed. And countries have been known to differ in both directions with the status accorded them by development agencies.

In a larger context, however, almost all countries have their developed and developing sections. As a resident of the United States who works in New York, I am quite aware of both the regional and the urban and rural differences in my country that would cause me to identify specific areas as developed, developing, or, worse, underdeveloped and not necessarily developing. Such distributions exist in most countries.

In this context, extending Internet access to developing regions of the world implies activity in almost all countries of the world. The issue of how a country is classified may be less relevant than the degree to which the lives of those who do not have access could be improved by having it. Clearly, in such calculations the role of the nation is very important, because the result of lack of Internet access by governments affects the entire country.

Problems developing countries face

Any plan to introduce networking into developing countries needs to address a multitude of issues, many of which are not generally factors in more developed countries. The key factors that affect a country's rate of absorption and utilization of computing and networking technology include both internal and external ones. Internal factors include the existing physical and human resources infrastructure of the country and its state of development and rate of growth. External factors include the willingness of suppliers to do business in the country and the availability and amount of international assistance directed toward transfer of such technology.

The state of the physical communications infrastructure is crucial. Adequate international and local links may be neither present nor reliable; equipment may be difficult to obtain, maintain, and repair; electrical power may not be reliable. Computers and the related peripherals required for networking may be absent or inadequate. Transportation and communications links may be weak and retard progress.

The skills required to establish and operate an international network link and a national data network depend on the type and complexity of the connections, but include some mix of ability to deal with computer hardware and software as well as with data communications hardware and protocols. Knowledge of network administration and network design-including local area and wide area networks-is required. Knowledge of how to establish network services and serve information over the net, regardless of subject matter, is required. Aspects of the cultural milieu within a country may be important in determining how those skills are generated and used. Responsiveness to educational opportunity, the strength of the work ethic, and attitudes and policies toward achievement, employment, production, and productivity all are important in the successful generation and accumulation of knowledge.

In general, within developing-country environments, specialized knowledge is often either missing or in short supply. There is generally substantial competition for the scarce, more talented individuals within both the public and the private sectors as well as between them. Emigration to better labor markets-(the so-called brain drain)-causes depletion of the resources necessary to exploit technology, in the face of countries having a limited set of human resources with which to work.

In developing countries, information poverty is one of the more significant and insidious obstacles to effective exploitation of information processing and other types of technology. Lack of adequate information regarding developments in other countries and other environments is often not noticed, and in the absence of new information, old techniques and procedures are continued without conscious knowledge of alternatives. In addition, even though developing countries may not be hurt in an absolute sense by lack of information, they are certainly negatively affected by any relative measure.

Most but not all developing countries are financially poor relative to developed countries. They suffer from low levels of both financial assets and national income. Their economies are subject to wide-ranging performance fluctuations due to factors beyond their immediate control. Some are not viable without sustained development aid.

Many developing countries are benefiting from direct assistance in transferring computing and networking technology to themselves. Involvement with private-sector firms in developed countries can have significant benefits; policies promoting domestic investment as well as taxation and profit repatriation incentives can encourage firms to enter local markets and provide benefits for a country. Private foreign investment in high-technology fields often brings with it significant flows of information and training opportunities.

Other contextual constraints may be present. Information poverty, financial poverty, and misperceptions about the costs and benefits of network connectivity have sometimes resulted in decisions to delay investment in networking activities, which may be considered too expensive relative to other needs. Geographic distances hinder the spread of networking. And government postal and telecommunications authorities frequently can be grudging or hostile to networking.

Potential of the Internet

Who are the stakeholders?

Thirty years ago, when the initial research in packet switching was being performed, network applications were seen as resource sharing for research and as robust networks for military communication. The initial host-numbering scheme allowed a maximum of about 250 hosts. It was not anticipated then the extent to which packet-switching technology would become useful for a much larger set of people and applications.

The set of stakeholders in the Internet has grown rapidly. Today the Internet is still used by only a small minority of the world's population, but it is increasingly clear in developed countries that it will grow rapidly to become near ubiquitous and that the lives of almost all residents will be touched in one way or another by it. This will also be true of developing regions and countries of the world, but with a lag in time. In the medium to longer run, the stakeholders in the continued evolution and success of the Internet will be almost all of the people in the world.

Developing countries helping each other

For some time it has been a goal of developing countries to band together and help each other in their mutual efforts to develop. Development experiences in one country can be of use in other countries; the trick is for recipient countries to discover similar projects and relevant information that could be of use to them.

A significant development in that direction was initiated by John Woolston, Kate Wild, and Faye Daneliuk at IDRC starting in the mid-1970s. Woolston had just come from the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) in Vienna, Austria, where he was instrumental in setting up the first international information retrieval system for information about atomic energy.

The IDRC team conceptualized a system named DEVSIS (Development Information System), which worked in the following way. Every developing country would capture relevant development information abstracted in a standard bibliographic form on computer tape. Periodically, all information would be merged at a central location and redistributed to all contributors. The aggregate database, arranged in a form for easy retrieval via key words, would be available in all developing countries for interrogation, and information of interest would be pursued bilaterally.

Two enduring products emerged from that effort: MINISIS, a version of UNESCO's ISIS system that ran on a Hewlett-Packard 3000 system, for implementing DEVSIS nodes, and PADIS (The Pan-African Dissemination of Information System), which still operates at the UN Economic Commission for Africa in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, today and was the first regional DEVSIS node.

The UN system later endorsed this approach in the early 1980s, with its funding of the TCDC (Technical Cooperation among Developing Countries) Project. However, in order for such a system to work well, efficiently, and effectively, one needs both a distributed, disciplined group of information gatekeepers and a central operation responsible for information interchange. In this context, it should be noted that the Internet requires less of the information providers and finesses almost completely the need for central coordination, thereby providing a cost-effective solution for rapidly and effectively accessing an increasing share of the world's knowledge.

The Special Position of Africa

Of all developing regions, Africa stands out as the least networked of all. Progress has been slow for a number of reasons. A history of colonialism until recent times, poor physical and human infrastructures, patterns of communication tied to colonial powers rather than being intra-African, large distances, and absence of a tradition of stable government all have conspired to retard both development in the region and introduction of the Internet there.

Focus on Africa is appropriate for two reasons: networking there is still underdeveloped compared with much of the rest of the developing world, and the potential benefits of improved networking are great. The inferior state of African networking compared with the rest of the world has been acknowledged within Africa, and growing interest in rectifying the situation is an indication that the time for expansion of networking across Africa has arrived. Grassroots efforts to organize public networks are spreading across the continent, and restricted-access networks are also growing. Creation of the African Internet Forum testifies to the interest of the international donor community in helping to ameliorate existing networking conditions in Africa, and bilateral initiatives such as the USAID's Leland initiative provide concrete evidence that some international assistance will be forthcoming.

The spread of networking in Africa has the potential to improve the quality of life of significant numbers of average Africans. By connecting individuals and institutions that provide services-for example, health care workers, agriculture extension officials, and educators-they can provide services on the basis of better information both from abroad and from their own countries and regions. And given the growing commercialization of the Internet, the potential for the creation of local businesses is nonnegligible: business associated with computer-based communication, as well as other sorts, can benefit from the improved communications potential that networking offers. The timeliness and functionality of network-based communications are strong incentives for organizations needing international communications to join the network.

Issues Related to International Spread of the Internet and of Western Culture

The culture of the Internet reflects its roots in the North American research community. Important elements of that culture include broad freedom of expression and sharing of information. The element of freedom of expression has come in for criticism from a variety of sources as material-offensive to some-has been created and has become available on the Net.

Countries, governments, and cultures differ on what kinds of material are acceptable for people to be exposed to. While even in North America there is no absolute right to freedom of expression under any and all circumstances, both the laws and the cultures permit expression of a broad spectrum of content. Other governments and cultures have different opinions about what is acceptable, and they see the Internet as a conveyance for unacceptable content. In this case, the technology favors free expression, because no controls short of the most draconian can now keep someone anywhere in the world from accessing the Internet. An extreme case is currently being provided by the government of Myanmar, which has recently imposed severe penalties for not registering fax machines and modems. One must assume that registration of such a device in Myanmar is equivalent to potential or actual real-time government observation of what is transmitted. Yet with the growth of satellite-based Internet services, it will not be possible for the Myanmar government to ensure that it can control all access to the Net.

On the other hand, those who are products of Western culture might think about the legitimacy of some of the concerns that governments express. Some governments, for example, wish only to limit the entry of pornography into their countries and are willing to admit all other content, including criticism of the current regime. If we believe that we possess absolute truth, then it follows that we should ignore such concerns. However, if we take a different view-that culture is relative and that there are aspects of other cultures that have value and should be respected-then we might look upon such a concern somewhat differently. Westerners are very sensitive to the slippery-slope argument; admit the possibility of any censorship at all, and you lose control over the domain of what is restricted in the future. One might ask the extent to which this is true in other, different societies and to what extent such considerations would stop any government that wanted to restrict information regardless of public or world reaction.

Likewise, concerns have been raised in some non-Anglophone countries that the Internet is either implicitly or explicitly a tool to promote the linguistic dominance of English. It is true that the roots of the Internet in North America, coupled with the initial explosion of content in the same general region, currently make the Internet, and especially the World Wide Web, primarily a medium of expression in English. Furthermore, dominance of the ASCII character set in electronic mail has encouraged the use of languages that use the English alphabet.

In the long run, the Internet and the Web are likely to promote far more the use of languages other than English. If the Net is to be useful to most of the world's peoples, then the language of the Net in a country must be the local language, expressed in written form in the local alphabet. This is recognized both by countries and by companies, which see market expansion possibilities in countries only through localization of text and the ability to represent multiple alphabets.

If we are fortunate, a standard like UNICODE will prevail, in which every alphabet used today will have a specific representation and rendering. Unlike the initial e-mail systems, the Web is UNICODE capable, and there is increasing activity in the UNICODE browser market. To the extent to which such multialphabet implementations are widely perpetuated, the door is open for the development of content created locally and observable globally that serves both nations and diverse communities scattered around the world.

The Internet Society's Role

Assisting in the diffusion of technology and its benefits

When asked what the purpose of the Internet Society is, Vint Cerf sometimes says, "To take the Internet where no net has ever gone before." The statement derives from the television show Star Trek and lends some humor, but the underlying intent is deadly serious. The first intent of the Internet Society is to work toward having at least one point of presence for the Internet within every country and territory of the world.

Cerf's statement goes further, however. For the Net to go somewhere geographically is just the first step. After the Internet is in place, it can "go" to other tasks in that country where no net has ever gone before: helping to provide the country with educational resources for primary, secondary, and university education; helping to inform health professionals how to provide better treatment; helping producers understand international markets for their products and how to do business on the Net; assisting the country's scientists to maintain professional collaboration with their international colleagues; providing a mechanism for the country to exhibit its culture internationally; and assisting the country's government in formulating and implementing effective economic and social policies.

The benefits-and the problems-associated with Internet connectivity will be first explored in developed countries such as the United States. As we learn what the lasting benefits are, we should work to ensure that those benefits become known to other countries and that they learn how to exploit them for their own good.

The Developing Countries Workshop

The Developing Countries Workshop is a concrete manifestation of what the Internet Society has been doing to achieve the above-mentioned objective. Since 1993, about 750 participants from well over 100 countries have been trained in various aspects of network technology and have returned to their countries to facilitate introduction and growth of the Internet there. From September 1993 to September 1995, every new country connected to the Internet was assisted by one of the workshop graduates.

The workshop, formally titled the Network Training Workshop for Countries in the Early Stages of Internetworking, was first held in August 1993 at Stanford University in conjunction with the INET '93 Conference in San Francisco. Since then, it has been held in Prague, Czech Republic, in 1994; in Honolulu in 1995 and in Montreal in 1996. The next workshop is scheduled to take place in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in June 1997.

The workshop has grown from 126 participants and 15 instructors in 3 tracks in 1993 to 250 participants and over 40 instructors in 6 tracks in 1996. From the beginning, the instructors all have been volunteers, often giving up part or all of their vacations to participate in this activity. Each year, one or more of the new instructors come from the previous student population, so that there may soon be a majority of instructors from developing countries.

Support for the workshop has come from the Internet Society INET Conference budget and from a large number of corporate and organizational sponsors. A very large amount of equipment is donated each year to assist in the training process. We are fortunate in that the interests of firms in the networking business almost completely coincide with our interests in training. And each year, we have had the benefit of the venue of a generous local host institution-Stanford University, Czech Technical University, the University of Hawaii, and McGill University-that has donated substantially in terms of space and effort to help make the workshop a success.

The popularity of the workshop reflects the fact that training is an essential part of what is needed in developing countries to jump-start the introduction, spread, and exploitation of the Internet in many developing countries. Participants are chosen on the basis of their ability to do the work, their ability to leverage the spread of the Internet in their institution and their country, and the leverage that their institution has for spreading the Internet within their country. Participants are selected solely by the workshop team and come from government, educational institutions, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and private companies.

Visiting Internet Experts

The Internet Society hopes to soon launch its Visiting Expert Program for supporting development in emerging countries by aiding government, private-sector, not-for-profit, and NGO bodies in their efforts to implement a stable Internet. The society expects to soon identify funding that will support the program.

The Visiting Expert Program will offer interested countries short-term assistance in the area of Internet introduction, technology, policy, and use. The program specifically addresses the legal, regulatory, technical, and educational obstacles that often require outside expertise. A visit by an appropriate expert for a short time can assist in eliminating the obstacle and can provide substantial information about the Internet and additional ways to use it. Such visits can precipitate the formation of new Internet Society chapters: self-help groups that accumulate and share their own critical mass of expertise in the field.

As do the Network Training Workshops, the Visiting Expert Program will rely almost exclusively on dedicated volunteers from the Internet Society membership and the larger Internet community. Such volunteerism is a product of the Internet culture. Rooted in education and research, that culture embodies the spirit of sharing-an ethic that remains strong and can support most or all of the expertise required for the program.

Other Initiatives

The Internet Society has been involved in other development initiatives. Although it is not widely known, Internet Society members wrote the initial proposal that led to the formation of the U.S. government's Leland initiative to network 20 African countries during the next five years. Internet Society members have served as consultants for both multilateral and bilateral aid organizations, as well as consultants to NGOs.

Developing Countries Workshop staff have been instrumental in teaching several other workshops sponsored by other organizations, including NATO Advanced Technology Workshops in Kiev, Ukraine, and St. Petersburg, Russia, and an upcoming UNDP/UNESCO/ITU workshop in Accra, Ghana. The Central and East European Networking Association (CEENet) series of workshops held in 1995 in Warsaw, Poland, and in 1996 in Budapest, Hungary, has been taught by trainers who were trained in Internet Society workshops. CEENet is now self-sufficient in its training capabilities and is expanding its efforts in Eastern Europe. Internet Society workshop trainers are regarded by the international networking community as people who understand the issues involved in training for developing environments and who can teach people how to succeed in those environments.

A Possibly Broader Mandate

It may be time to consider to what extent the Internet Society could and should broaden its mandate with respect to the developing world. The need for assistance is clear, and the supply of willing and capable volunteers has not yet been exhausted. Financial support would, of course, be needed for most such initiatives.

Informal proposals for activities are not lacking. The formation of an IDTF (Internet Development Task Force) to focus activities in this area has been suggested. Other projects suggested have been assistance to Africa in the formation of an African Internet protocol registry, creation of a system of regional training workshops, short-term-fellowship opportunities in network-rich environments for students from developing countries, and a roster of trainers, with skills and availability, to support other training initiatives. The list of such activities can easily be extended using little imagination.


By helping to introduce and extend the Internet, the Internet Society-in fulfillment of its mandate to ensure cooperation and coordination in the evolution of the global Internet-has been active in addressing the issues faced by the developing world. To date ISOC's emphasis has been on training, and there has been a substantial payoff to the activity. We all need to consider additional ways to leverage the volunteer and sharing aspects of our community and our society to ensure that the benefits of the Net are realized and exploited by developing countries. Your thoughts as members of the society are welcome.

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