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International IT Assistance Takes Form

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International IT Assistance Takes Form In Content Transfer Debate Continues Over Whether Poor Countries Should Worry Less About IT, More About Basic Needs

Whether international organizations and Western institutions can help poor nations use advanced information technology tools, such as the Internet, for economic and social development is a question that’s getting serious discussion in the United States and Europe.
While much of the discussion centers around whether information technology (IT) assistance should be a high priority given that developing nations have pressing needs in areas such as food production, health care, clean water and education, new initiatives are advancing the debate by creating models of IT intellectual resource assistance.
Last month, a group of six American and European publishing companies announced that they would provide free, or at drastically reduced cost, electronic access to nearly 1,000 medical journals to developing nations. Led by the World Health Organization, which is part of the United Nations, the medical journals initiative will benefit nearly 600 institutions, including medical schools, research laboratories and government health departments in developing countries, mostly in Africa. The program will offer training to enable researchers to properly access the medical information by computer.
“The new initiative will help thousands of health professionals, researchers and policymakers to use the best available scientific evidence when contributing to better health for all within the populations they serve,” says Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, director general of the World Health Organization. “It has enormous potential for reducing the gap in access to health information between rich and poor countries.”
“This is wonderful news. The scarcity of journals in educational institutions is a big issue,” Dr. Vinand Nantulya, an Ugandan physician and researcher, told The Washington Post.
In a related development, Massachusetts Institute of Technology officials have reported that their April decision to post virtually all of the course materials from MIT classes for free on the Internet sparked an overwhelming response from students and college faculty in developing countries.
“We got 4,000 e-mails initially, most of which were international, thanking us for making this commitment,” says MIT spokeswoman Patti Richards. “We didn’t anticipate that the initiative would be so highly regarded, particularly by people in developing countries.”
Andy Carvin, a senior research associate at the Benton Foundation in Washington, says the donation of intellectual resources via the Internet or other electronic means to developing nations is seen as a worthy move by Western institutions. Carvin notes, however, that resources, such as the medical journals, are valuable only to the extent that foreign organizations and individuals have a dependable infrastructure over which to access the information.
“Without the right infrastructure and trained professionals who require the technical data in their work, this information would go only so far,” Carvin says.

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Debating over priorities
For several years, Western institutions’ contributions to IT infrastructure development in developing nations has focused largely on computers, and wired and wireless networks. Providing access to valuable content, such as technical databases, represents a more recent development, according to experts.
“Historically, international organizations have looked at infrastructure terms of hardware not content. That’s beginning to change,” Carvin notes.
An effort by the developing world to take advantage of distance education courses offered by Western nations is sprouting and is represented by entities, such as the African Virtual University. Based in Nairobi, Kenya, the African Virtual University offers distance education courses from universities around the world to African students and was launched by the World Bank in 1997.
Still, international organizations have searched for a consensus around the best assistance practices. In 2000, the Group of Eight international coalition held a summit in Okinawa, Japan, where it established the Digital Opportunity Task Force (DOT Force) to examine and propose solutions to the international digital divide. Nonetheless, protesters burned computers in response, sending the message that the world’s poor need food rather than laptops.
Last October, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates publicly stated that the poor in developing nations are better served by infrastructure development that focuses on electricity generation, clean water and health care.
“In developing countries, you have a debate over what should be a priority — IT or basic needs. It’s a very difficult choice,” Carvin says.
Carvin adds that while technical information donated by the West can be helpful to poor countries, it is necessary for developing nations to generate its own content via the Internet rather than solely depend on the resources of other countries. 

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