World Wide Web: possibly the greatest unrealized dream of our generation. When I first arrived in Addis the thing that annoyed me most was, sadly but not surprisingly, a lack of high speed internet and frequently no internet at all.
Your first thought may be, ‘Geeze, get over yourself, you’re working in the developing world, what do you expect?’ Well, this is not my first experience in the developing world, and I’m sure if you had asked me, I would have agreed I did not expect frequent internet access.
All the same, I find it astonishing that, in this age of celebrated technological advancement, one of the most secure cities in the Horn of Africa can muster a connection of only 54.6 kilobytes per second, when available. Can you even remember the last time you heard that old dial-up modem struggling to connect to the internet?
I made a big to-do of this my first couple of weeks, asking fellow volunteers their thoughts on the matter. Of course, many of them said they felt that there were needs much greater than high speed internet such as adequate health care, clean water, food security, education, infrastructure, the list goes on forever. The other argument against a high speed world wide web is that the technology is simply not out there to make it feasible at this point in time. Obviously, persons in charge of policy and grant distribution must be dialed into the same thought process, as billions upon billions are allocated to each of these categories every year.
This type of spending and policy, no doubt, provides relief to many. Over time however, it begins to look like reactionary policy. The technology has to be available that would provide every inch of the earth with high speed internet. I refuse to believe we can routinely send persons to outer-space, but cannot provide affordable, high speed internet to everyone in the world.
Is this an opportunity for the private sector? In some respect it is comparable to cell phone coverage today. What incentives will private corporations need from governments and other policy making bodies, such as the UN?
Imagine what a hard working Ethiopian farmer, barely surviving on his few acres of land, could do with unlimited information on soil, erosion control, land management and reforestation, double harvesting, available grants and loans, the latest in irrigation techniques and affordable water pumps, fertilizers and the worldwide demand for specific crops. I would venture to say he may just make enough to send his kids to college, provide for his family and neighbors, and even expand his operations, producing more food on less land (leaving room for tree-planting, maybe even orchards, which simultaneously yield food and carbon reduction) thus offsetting the skyrocketing price of food. As well, imagine the environmental benfits realized from all farmers following best practices with regard to land and water management.
Rising food prices worldwide (visit bbc.com and check out the report on Afar, Ethiopia) are seriously crippling economies in the devloped world and livelihoods in the devloping world. When will policy makers begin to connect the dots, making it economically feasible for someone or some corporation to begin to offer this service? I’m not saying investments in health care, clean water, education, infrastructure and especially food relief need to be canceled or drastically reduced. I do believe however, that a portion of those billions of dollars could go towards subsidizing the costs of creating a truly world wide web.
Traditional economic theory holds that free markets and specialization with regard to comparative advantage provide the most gains for everyone. Historically, free trade agreements based upon these foundations have failed to realize positive net gains for all involved. Could this be due, in part, to the fact that markets operate most efficiently when all participants have complete information?
The small, rural, family oriented farmer has as much right to information and knowledge as anyone, in any position, anywhere else in the world. Furthermore, he would be able to share his breakthroughs with fellow farmers and vice versa. Empowering people in their native environment to tackle the issues facing them is, in my humble opinion, the most we can ever hope to do. A world wide web, accessible instantaneously everywhere, should be high on the priority list of all world leaders in both the public and private sectors.
I’ll leave you with a thought from the late economist E.F. Schumacher,
“Among natural resources, the greatest unquestionably, is the land. Study how a society uses its land, and you can come to pretty reliable conclusions as to what its future will be.”
A lack of information leads to poor soil quality, and poor land makes poor people.
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia