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March/April 2001
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Developing the Internet in Developing Nations
By Wendy Rickard

Throughout the developing world, small groups of citizens are changing their worlds based on the shared belief that information and communication technology (ICT) can make a difference. And while in the developed world the pumped-up information economy has officially transformed how its citizens work, live, learn, and entertain themselves, emerging economies are wrestling with more basic issues, such as connectivity, content management, training, and public policy. Beyond those issues, however, are questions about what citizens of those regions need and what constitutes solutions.

In this issue of OnTheInternet--our fifth annual edition focused on the Internet in emerging nations--those issues, needs, and solutions are put under the lens, offering an interesting picture of where we are. Most provocative perhaps is a proposal by Scott Robinson in the article "Rethinking Telecenters," to use ICT to create telecenters linked with microbanks that would provide digital remittance services. "Who would use a rural or community telecenter, especially if the best and the brightest have left?" asks Robinson. In Latin America, it turns out, significant resources are invested in communicating with relatives abroad. And those conversations tend to be of the when-are-you-sending-money-home? variety. According to Robinson, in Mexico, "reliable estimates peg the total transfer costs for remittances at an average of 20 percent of the more than 8 billion U.S. dollars sent home every year by the more than 18 million Mexicanos who are living north of the border." With poor exchange rates the norm for those types of transactions, a microbank-based digital-remittance-transfer system that can exploit certain benefits of electronic commerce could have a significant impact on the lives of those individuals.

The future of food security in India is the subject of "Toward a Knowledge System for Sustainable Food Security," by V. Balaji, K. G. Rajamohan, R. Rajasekara Pandy, and S. Senthilkumaran, who believe that "agriculture will need to be developed as an effective instrument for creating more income, more jobs, and more food." To that end, the authors propose that ICTs should play a significant role in developing and sustaining the knowledge and skills that are a necessary part of the new agriculture paradigm. Their research based on programs launched in the Pondicherry region serves as an interesting model for viewing the relationship between ICTs and agriculture.

Closer to home, the Internet Society's vice president of education George Sadowsky offers a detailed look at the Network Training Workshops, which have successfully trained more than 2,500 students in network connectivity in seven years, and he discusses the future of this important program. And with more than one-third of ISOC's chapters being formed in developing regions, this issue of OnTheInternet offers a close look at what's happening at chapter meetings in Africa.

Ermanno Pietrosemoli is one of the small group of thoughtful, committed citizens the workshops have reached. Pietrosemoli is a member of the university and research networking community that pioneered networking in many developing nations. As we see in his article, "Networking in Latin America," he and his colleagues now offer local versions of the networking workshops in addition to their jobs running important networks. While university and research networks bootstrapped the Internet in nearly every nation, they are now facing the commercial networking tsunami. Some see this as a boon for developing nations; others fear it will deepen the growing digital divide.

Madanmohan Rao ponders that issue when he asks, "How Real Is the Internet Market in Developing Nations?" He also shows us that the Net is still in its infancy in nations like Laos. Larry Press and his colleagues recently studied the Internet in Nepal, which is also struggling to answer Rao's question, and they came away recommending some possible steps toward finding an answer.

What we see in this issue are first the tremendous progress that has been made in bringing the Internet to developing nations and, second, the parallel issues that arise when progress is made. From complex policy issues to overcoming seemingly insurmountable technical barriers, to the requisite training and content questions, attainment of the benefits of Internet access requires patience, resources, and creativity. Internet access is, after all, part of what it means today to be developed.

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