Virtual Networks Are Now as Important as Railway Networks - An
Interview with Tara Vishwanath
By Madanmohan Rao
Tara Vishwanath grew up in Bombay, received a Ph.D. in information
economics from Northwestern University, and has been with the
World Bank (www.worldbank.org) for the past three years. She is one of the principal authors
of a 250-page World Development Report titled Knowledge for Development.
The report was unveiled in late 1998, and just prior to this interview,
she had returned from rolling out the report to a dozen countries
in Asia and Europe, including India.
Q: Your report argues for the importance that developing countries
reduce technical knowledge gaps and improve quality control information
via appropriate national policies and new media technologies like
the Internet. What is the overall context that's shaped the way
your report addresses technologies like the Net?
A: In a globalized economy, issues like lifelong learning, training
and retention of skilled workers, transparency of government and
financial institutions, and rural as well as distance education
are key for success.
We note that developing countries lag to some extent in communications
infrastructure, technical know-how, and information processes
about the economy and the environment. At the same time, we note
that communications technologies like the Net are continuing to
become more affordable and powerful.
In this context, we see the Net as a key facilitator for commerce,
globalization, knowledge management, and any activity that requires
rapid communication. It can help remove the exploitative nature
of situations where only a few people and institutions are in
control of vital information.
So whether you are talking about information regarding the quality
of milk, crop inspection standards, databases of importers, global
economic indicators, or government spending by politicians, publishing
on the Net can effectively augment traditional communication channels.
In fact, information and communication deficiencies are partly
responsible for the recent Asian economic crisis; comprehensive
and transparent accounting via the Net could have helped ameliorate
some of its effects by creating multiple eyes monitoring the situation.
Q: How was the report rolled out and received in India and other
parts of the world?
A: In Asia I rolled out the report in India, Bangladesh, China,
the Philippines, and Thailand followed by France, Germany, Britain,
Austria, and Switzerland in Europe. Everywhere the response to
the report was positive and enthusiastic.
Even from our Web site, we notice there have been over 2,000 downloads
of the report in the last month. One question we have been asked
by almost everyone is, Now what?
We have identified several follow-up areas in our report: assisting
in creation of knowledge-building capacity; initiating policy
dialogues regarding knowledge--especially in areas like public
health and food; and building consortia. We plan to more actively
assess and assist information infrastructure projects. We are
already involved in the African Virtual University project.
In India we chose to roll out the report not just in New Delhi
but also in Hyderabad--a first for the World Bank. It was important
for us to recognize and commend the efforts of leaders like Andhra
Pradesh chief minister Chandrababu Naidu, who clearly seems to
have demonstrated the understanding and political will to increase
the diffusion of information and communication technologies like
the Internet. He has been pushing very strongly for broader access
to these technologies by citizens and for more transparency in
practices of government agencies, both of which are key to the
Q: What key challenges did you face in putting together the report?
If you could go back in time and do the report again from scratch,
what would you do differently the second time around?
A: It was hard to bring closure to the report, since knowledge--even
just in the context of development--is a diffuse concept, encompassing
culture, politics, and technology. In hindsight, more consultation
during the production process would have helped. We could have
included more material such as case studies from the field, and
we could have broadened the scope to include more countries. We
also should have added more material on knowledge management to
avert disasters and during the disaster itself.
In fact, as Nobel laureate Amartya Sen has rightly pointed out,
the freedom of the media in India has helped in early detection
of disasters like famines--unlike in the case of China. We could
have added more material on the role of the media, but that may
have taken the report in a rather different direction.
And finally, it would have been nice to include more URLs in the
report--for development-oriented resources.
Q: What are your recommendations for interaction between government
and private sectors in the information economy?
A: Government and civil society also play important roles in an
information-enabled age; everything is not market driven. But
governments should unleash--and not stifle--the private sector.
The creative energies of entrepreneurs and the resources of corporate
entities need to be harnessed in the overall national design.
The opening up of the ISP market in India is definitely a welcome,
though long overdue, step in this regard. There needs to be not
just agreement but also commitment and ownership of information
agendas from governments. Future regulatory moves must sustain
the momentum of the ISP market and not choke it. Such measures
help open up the bottom-up and peer-to-peer communication that
is so vital to the development process.
Useful lessons can be learned from countries like Chile and Ghana,
whose progressive telecom policies have led to widespread cell
phone and Internet access. South Africa's Universal Service Agency,
set up in 1996, provides two years' worth of start-up costs for
entrepreneurs who run community information centers, many of which
provide Internet access.
Better regulatory environments can help get more telecom access
to people. Currently, an estimated 28 million people--almost all
of them in developing countries--are on waiting lists for telephone
Q: What are some notable case studies of how the Net is being
used in emerging economies for the development process?
A: Open universities like the Virtual University of the Monterrey
Institute of Technology in Mexico, which enrolls 9,000 degree
and 35,000 nondegree students from Latin America, use the Net
for student-faculty communication.
We are involved in the African Virtual University project, headquartered
in Nairobi, [Kenya,] to increase African researchers' access to
educational resources like aca-demic journals through the Net.
Singapore Network Services' e-mail-based services, which helped
improve the efficiency of Singapore's ports, are now being adopted
in India, Malaysia, and Vietnam.
The Net has helped create globally dispersed communities of interest
in development issues. For instance, the recent Global Knowledge
conference, cohosted by the World Bank and the government of Canada,
led to creation of the Global Knowledge Partnership site (www.globalknowledge.org).
Another useful online resource is OneWorld Online (www.oneworld.org),
a Web-based clearinghouse of issues related to sustainable development.
It receives inputs from organizations in countries like India,
Italy, and Britain and has about 70,000 articles in six languages.
It also has a search engine and directory dedicated solely to
An NGO called Peoplink (www.peoplink.org) uses the Web to publicize
the handicraft work of women in countries like Panama. And computer
networks have dramatically helped improve policy-making processes
in countries like Morocco.
Challenges arise in areas like copyright protection on the Net;
for researchers, an ongoing challenge is being able to authenticate
online information and consistently refer to documents from a
continually changing Web.
Q: How is the World Bank presently using intranets and extranets
for its own knowledge management activities?
A: The World Bank currently uses technologies like videoconferencing
for knowledge sharing. We need to reassess how intranets can help
us in this regard. We also plan to use extranets to communicate
with our stakeholders and partners around the world who are working
on collaborative projects. Such platforms can be very useful in
managing knowledge and metaknowledge for things like assessing
Q: For decades, media analysts, development scholars, and, more
recently, computer professionals have been stressing the importance
of media and communication technologies as knowledge enablers
in the development process. What took the World Bank so long to
come out with this report?
A: Perhaps our earlier models focused mostly on attaining rapid
economic growth and thus concentrated more on physical, tangible
aspects of the economy. Now we have realized the importance of
information economics also and have begun to include knowledge
policies and communications technologies like the Internet in
Virtual networks, after all, are now as important as railway networks.
Q: Any parting words of advice or comments to Indian Internet
professionals and policy makers?
A: At a time when some Asian economies are going through a temporary
rough patch, it is important that India stay focused on the proper
lessons: boost exports, increase governmental and corporate transparency,
and increase the pace of opening up the telecommunications sector.
The momentum in sectors like the Internet economy must not be
allowed to slacken. A gap between Internet haves and have-nots
must not be allowed to grow.
Nurture and retain local talent; focus on global markets as well
as indigenous relevance in areas like software. Develop a national
knowledge strategy, and migrate up the value chain from cheap
software shops to high-grade information sectors in the Internet
Information failures will always persist, even in the most information-savvy
economies. The key is to use processes and technologies to help
ameliorate these failures. It is important for organizations--government,
corporations, and NGOs--to become more open.
It is sad to note that most of the world's poor are in South Asia.
Every process and technology possible, from the traditional to
the modern, must be harnessed to eradicate this poverty.
About the Author: Madanmohan Rao