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March/April 1999
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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 development process.

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 installation.

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 sustainable development.

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 aid initiatives.

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 our projects.

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 economy.

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.

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