THE historic United Nations Millennium Summit ended with a vow by the world's leaders to attempt to solve the world's most pressing problems. Global issues such as poverty, war, AIDS, human rights abuses and limited access to education and health resources were identified in a New Millennium resolution as problems world governments must target.
While the collective efforts of world governments to combat humankind's woes is paramount, technology already in place for the past decade has allowed international development to occur at a grass-roots level.
When the Chinese government cracked down on protesting students in Tiananmen Square in June 1989, and when a coup attempt threatened Mikhail Gorbachev's regime in the Soviet Union in August 1991, the world was watching simultaneously. It wasn't only because CNN reported on such events around the clock. A new and more potent force had already established itself -- global internetworks.
International networks of computers allow information to be distributed quickly and cheaply. Researchers in developing countries now have access to much of the information available in the developed world because it is carried over the Internet. These researchers can communicate directly with experts across the globe. Non-Governmental Organizations engaged in development work have benefited as well. Traditionally, NGOs have had trouble getting vital information. Internetworks have begun to alleviate this problem and show great promise. However, those without access to communication technologies are further marginalized. Increasing access is an important development work in itself.
Several years ago a man digging a well in Burkina Faso, miles away from the nearest phone or electricity, was stymied by lack of needed specifications for the depth of his well. The man used his solar powered laptop computer and a portable satellite dish to send an e-mail request for help. An NGO worker who dug wells in rural Liberia sent the correct specifications, which the man received via satellite in a matter of hours. Someone in Australia also responded to the request.
By quickly disseminating information, the Internet also enables companies to decide whether to set up new enterprises in the developing world. In the past, many organizations and businesses that were willing to invest in such projects as building factories backed out at the last minute because they didn't feel comfortable funding projects in which they could not see the results. This discomfort has been eased somewhat since the Internet allows owners and investors to participate in and supervise projects.
THE major benefit of the Internet may be that it is "asynchronous." This means that participants need not be present at the time the message is sent to receive it. This feature opens up alternatives. People can use the Internet when the rates are cheaper. E-commerce has brought prosperity to small enterprises by eliminating the middle man. From the individual grain farmer in the Midwest to the rural woman who plants exotic herbs to be made into condiments or perfumes in a remote village, global internetworks eliminate the need for brokers and large institutions. By bringing small businesses from across the world into the same marketplace, the Internet can add to competition, spread prosperity all over the world and be a source of progressive change and social justice.
Because the Internet now is so widely used, nothing can be hidden. Human rights abuses are registered daily on human rights issue e-mail lists. Also, medical information is more easily available, and tele-surgery is possible via links made by doctors through the Internet. Quick, interactive exchanges of information between medical experts are saving lives around the world, especially by facilitating correct diagnosis of various diseases.
Global Internetworks also create rich conduits for cultural exchange. School-age children can communicate with their counterparts all over the world because this form of media is less expensive than others. Such cultural exchanges over the Internet help alleviate isolation. The laptop computer has been the only form of communication with the outside world in some villages. Computers have certainly created more human-to-human interaction.
Finally, the growing awareness that these means of communication are available induces new attitudes. Taboos are broken down and the deadwood of tradition is cleared away. Developing societies are given a sense of uplift. Many who have worked with alternative communication technologies have noted the spirit of helpfulness that pervades. Once one learns to screen the volume of information than can swamp one's computer display, the Internet can become a liberator even in remote corners of the world.
Sonia Ahuja, West County, is the overseas study coordinator at St. Louis Community College.
© 2000 St. Louis Post-Dispatch