Kunda Dixit is director of Panos South Asia and co-publisher of Himal magazine. After his presentation at the World-Information Forum in Vienna he spoke to Wolfgang Sützl about the digital divide and its implications for the global political systems.
Q: In your presentation you have been quite skeptical about the potential of information and communication technologies of actually promoting development, of improving the conditions in the poorer parts of the world. You mentioned the phrase "What the Internet cannot do". Is there anything at all that the Internet can do with regard to development?
A: Actually "What the Internet cannot do" was not my phrase. It was the title of a cover story in the "Economist". I use that to illustrate my point that there is much more realism about the potential of the Internet, not just in developing countries like Nepal where I come from but also in the north. The digital divides exist not just globally but also within countries. Even in America - Al Gore's big plan was to bridge digital divide within America. I think there is a growing realism but many of us in the southern developing countries who realize that there are a lot of other things we have to do, that have to be straightened out - politically, structurally, economically - before the Internet could deliver its true potential for communication. As I outlined in my talk, one of the simplest reasons for why Internet and communication technologies cannot immediately solve the problem for us is because people can't afford it and because of infrastructure problems like phone lines that do not really work.
Q: How do you assess the major international development institutions and their position in this regard? Do you think this is a conclusion that is widely shared?
A: Donor institutions use the Internet and information technology so much because they're global. They have to keep on communicating, they are true believers in this. Actually the UN system and the World Bank have big projects to wire up the world. I think some of them are working well, in some countries the situation is ripe enough for the technologies to make a difference. In others it's just very sexy to have an IT project so they bring it in. And the people who benefit will be the elite in those countries and they're not really to poor people.
Q: So are we talking about a repetition of the failed project of industrialization on a digital level?
A: No, not that sinister. I think what we can't overlook is also that impact. Take countries that are fairly well developed but which don't have a free press, Malaysia, for example. Here the impact of the Internet is tremendous. There is one online magazine completely independent, which has now become so popular that the circulation of the newspapers in Malaysia has gone down. And you can see Malaysia, China and so on losing battles with the Internet. Also for international activism it's immensely powerful. So there are all those benefits. What I was trying to focus in here in my talk was more on the immediate needs for clean water, for hospitals that work, for schools that have teachers and for textbooks. These are immediate development problems in countries like Nepal where these need to be solved immediately. We can't wait now. If you have a competing priority and the government says: "We bring them Internet, with ISPs in the private sector" it's not a priority. The priority is to get the government mechanism set right so that these services can be delivered. And you don't need the Internet for that. Let's do that first and then talk about how we can use the Internet for education or media.
Q: Do you think that international development organizations are paying attention to those kinds of needs or are they all caught up with the Internet and informatization?
A: No. I think the whole UN-system has got its priority right but somehow the donors find Internet very easy to raise money for. If you go to a donor and say: "I want to build a rural, mobile, wireless Internet for poor farmers in Senegal." the donor is suddenly interested. But if you say: "I want to build hand pumps for clean drinking-water in Bangladesh." it's more difficult to raise money for this. You find this with other technologies as well. The donors are willing to give you money to set up a phone-network in a country but not a water supply-net because in many cases it's tied aid, let's face it. So if the Japanese, for example, will give you Internet network for rural areas then it's their phone lines, exchanges, switchboards and computers. There is that whole dynamics of foreign aid that is tied with purchases from the country that's giving it which means in the end it benefits the country giving rather than the country receiving.
Q: Given these circumstances do you see a future for the development projected at all or do you support some people arguing that we should abandon great development schemes all together and pay more attention to subsistence.
A: No, I think if grand development aid was stopped in Nepal then it would be a disaster because a lot of our services today are being funded by grants from UNICEF or from UNFBA or by NGOs. But maybe there are other countries, which are not so needy any more, where governments are cleaner and they work more efficiently, where it could be scaled back. But I'm not for stopping foreign aid. Yes, foreign aid is very inefficient, there's a lot of corruption associated with it and as it is said: Foreign aid is a way for taking money from the poor and rich countries and giving it to the rich and poor countries. There is a lot of cynicism about foreign aid but the good that it does - even when it's only 30% - is so vital for the poor in our countries that it shouldn't be stopped.
Q: Do you think that a country like yours has a sufficient say in determining the direction that foreign aid takes, what uses the money is being put to?
A: Less and less but that's not the donors' fault, it's our own fault. We don't do our homework to figure out what we need. We don't have a strategy. We have a democracy for only ten years and it's a messy democracy. We've had four elections in ten years and I don't know how many prime ministers. The government structures aren't working properly and that has an effect down the line on development itself and also on strategizing about what kind of foreign aid we want and the policy changes with every government. So I thing we have to get our act together.