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Published on Tuesday, July 11, 2000 in the International Herald Tribune
It's Past Time to Get Serious About Reducing Global Poverty
by Manzoor Ahmed
 
TOKYO - Will the annual Group of Eight summit meeting of the world's most powerful countries, to be hosted by Japan in Okinawa from July 21 to 23, be more than a talk fest, photo opportunity and source of sound bites for the domestic constituencies of the leaders?

Japan's late Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, who promoted the idea of information technology as a summit topic, spoke of a ''digital divide'' separating the rich and the poor of the world. He saw wider introduction of digital information technology in poor countries as a way of hastening their economic development. Japanese newspapers have called the July meeting the IT Summit.

The tendency of looking at information technology as the magic bullet for solving the problem of poverty and reducing the growing gap between the rich and the poor is misleading. It is diverting attention from problems that merit the attention of Group of Eight leaders. Issues of collaboration and regulatory framework for such matters as cyber-crime, electronic commerce and the social and economic impact of the digital revolution belongon the agenda.

Equally important is the issue of overcoming the digital divide by using new information technologies to expand education, develop new skills, improve productivity and broaden the channels of communication and information in developing countries. After all, 95 percent of Internet users are in Group of Eight countries, while half of the people in the developing countries have never used the telephone.

A tiny elite in developing countries are hooked to the Internet. A small minority of young people with technical skills in such countries as India, the Philippines and China are sharing the economic bonanza from information techology. Their numbers will grow. But this itself will not change the fate of the one-fifth of the world's people living on less than a dollar a day.

The benefits of information technology can be brought to the poor only by enabling them to take advantage of the opportunities it creates. That means rescuing people from a life of grinding poverty, preventing illiteracy in one quarter of world's adults, ensuring that 130 million out-of-school children enroll in primary school, and not letting 11 million young children die every year of preventable illness.

According to the Development Assistance Committee of the OECD, the seven most advanced economies devoted 0.21 percent of their combined GNP to official development assistance in 1999. Other industrialized countries spent 0.44 per cent. The richest nation of the world, the United States, accounting for a quarter of world's GNP, contributed 0.1 percent.

The leaders at their 1999 summit in Cologne agreed to reduce the crushing external debt burden of the most indebted poor countries. So far this has resulted in a plan to cancel less than a quarter of the $220 billion owed by these countries.

The advanced economies have set the goal of reducing by half by 2015 the proportion of people living in extreme poverty. They have adopted goals for universal primary education, adult literacy, gender equality in education, and reduction of child and maternal mortality. The UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan will propose a similar agenda to the millennium assembly of world leaders in September.

Achieving such goals requires mobilization of resources and a collective determination to make progress. Use of information technology will be an important component of this broader effort.

At their meeting in Okinawa, the leaders of the industrialized world should make a collective pledge to help mobilize the necessary resources to reduce global poverty. They should make specific plans to harness and redirect scientific and technological advances to this end. And they should work with developing countries, civil society and the United Nations to ful-fill the pledge.

The writer, director of the Unicef office for Japan, contributed this personal comment to the Herald Tribune.

Copyright 2000 IHT

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