Globalise, that something may remain

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
9 October, 2018
Editorial: 245
Fecha de publicación original: 12 diciembre, 2000

Build the enemy who flees a bridge of silver

The debate on the effects of globalisation, which is becoming more and more radical and not always very clear, is attracting a strange bunch of disciples and detractors. Last month in Seattle, at one of the world’s most important annual computer conferences, Bill Gates, president of the biggest corporation in the sector, claimed that what the Third World needs now is not computers, but medicine, better health care and, of course, enough food. One of the previous speakers, Mark Malloch, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) administrator, whose devastating reports on Human Development showed just how many countries would fit into Gates’ bank account, had defended the role of digital technology and computers in overcoming the chronic poverty of hundreds of millions of people all over the world with almost evangelical fervour.

These opposing points of view highlight different aspects of a debate from which nobody will emerge unscathed. Fundamental discussions about rich and poor, and the design and implementation of policies aimed at eradicating the problem of the endemic underdevelopment of two thirds of the human population, will have a powerful affect on many of the comfortable concepts concerning action –or the lack of it– that governments, international organisations, regional and local administrations, political parties, NGOs and even the intellectual “corpus” that have backed one or the other. Globalisation, despite the fact that we don’t know exactly what kind of genie is coiled up inside this lamp, will force us to confront old challenges with new arms. And it’s not going to be easy, above all because of the inertia of the last few decades, especially the deaf ear the rich have turned to the poor, which still has a fundamental effect on the way we perceive what we call globalisation (see editorial “Nobody knows who they work for”)

Malloch Brown doesn’t maintain that Gates’ argument is simplistic or contains a hidden agenda, but he is surprised that the computer king reduces the world’s problem to a question of whether we should make the effort to distribute these machines or not, thereby ignoring what the UNDP administrator feels is a key factor: the Net. Nor does one of the thorniest obstacles to development of the Net in the Third World escape Malloch’s attention, namely, constant cries from Gates and telecommunications operators for the protection of their intellectual property rights, prosecution of piracy and guaranteed investment in the renovation of telecommunications infrastructures.

Malloch, like other United Nations officials, thinks that for these barriers to be overcome, the business world also needs to change direction. With this objective in mind, a programme for extending telecommunications networks to developing countries has been introduced and, for the first time, there is promised financial and material aid from large corporations, governments, universities, development agencies, local companies and, yes, even the ubiquitous World Bank. At the last G-8 summit held in Okinawa, the countries concerned gave their support to a UNDP initiative called “Digital Opportunities Task Force” (“dot.force”), in which external debt reduction for developing countries will play an important role in paying for improved telecommunications structures.

The new word for this, yet another to add to the dictionary of rich new language coined by the Internet, is e-inclusion, or the development of policies aimed at getting telecommunications networks to the poorest areas of the planet. While social exclusion brought about by the digital divide has generated a considerable amount of political and conceptual discussion particularly in the US, very little is known about Angola, East Timor, Pakistan or Bhutan, where e-inclusion programmes are being implemented. In all these countries, distance learning and telemedicine projects have been set up. “It’s not necessary to get the latest model of computer into every home in order to do this”, says Malloch, “just a laptop in a remote clinic or school connected to the Net, by satellite or whatever, will do. The difference between having one or none is enormous, for this is the dividing line between having access to essential services such as health or education or being definitively excluded from them”.

Clare Short, Secretary of State for International Development for the British government has announced that she will be entering the globalisation arena with a White Paper which is bound to set the cat among the pigeons. At one fell swoop, Short attacks the position of many NGOs, opponents of the World Trade Organisation, environmental activists and, along the way, her own Prime Minister Tony Blair. She claims that the benefits of globalisation in the Third World are threatened by policies that only see the capitalism of big corporations. Curiously enough, this viewpoint is echoed by many new organisations which, especially in developing countries, see telecommunications networks as the fundamental tool for overcoming underdevelopment and even developing training for social innovators (see the interview with Rabia Abdelkrim-Chikh and the editorial “The Maturing of Citizen Networks“).

Translation: Bridget King