Tuesday's New York Times contained the following Editorial by Thomas Friedman. I'm reposting here, not to stir up any wars, but simply as a FWIW. I hope I'm not breaking any copyright laws...
Bill Lester [AVSC]
May 5, 1998
FOREIGN AFFAIRS / By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN
Booting Up Africa
Jim Lowenthal is wiring Timbuktu.
Mr. Lowenthal runs a small Internet company based in Morocco that has
an unusual contract from the U.S. Agency for International Development.
His job is to go to the most remote African countries and establish
Internet nodes in their capitals so that anyone there can make a local
phone call and get on the World Wide Web. He's already helped bring
Mali, Madagascar, Mozambique and Guinea on line, and is in the
process of wiring Benin, the Ivory Coast and four others, as well as
helping design Internet access for Timbuktu, in Mali -- the city that is a
synonym for the most obscure spot on earth.
"Timbuktu is a small town, but in the 14th century its university was a
center of learning for the Arab world, because it was a key crossroad for
caravans traversing the Sahara," said Mr. Lowenthal. "It's now a town of
sand and shrub but with amazing archives that are piled up and
deteriorating. The Mali Ministry of Culture would love to share them
with the world but they never had a way. The Internet gives them the
Projects like Mr. Lowenthal's highlight why globalization can leave one
simultaneously optimistic and pessimistic about Africa. Globalization
does two things at the same time: It increases the gap, further and faster
than ever before, between those partaking of the information revolution
and the global economy and those who are not. So the gap between the
Rift Valley and Silicon Valley is growing exponentially.
But at the same time, globalization and the information revolution offer
an escalator from poverty into the global economy that also moves
further and faster than ever before for countries that get the basics right.
Global investors are always looking for the next great opportunity, and
Africa has the potential to be that.
"What U.S. A.I.D. is trying to do," says Mr. Lowenthal, "is broadly
disseminate the basic information infrastructure that will allow African
countries to move from one step to the other. And the great thing about
the Information Age is that you can move from 0 to 60 much more quickly
than in the Industrial Age, if you get the basic digital information
technologies. I just came back from Guinea-Bissau. It has one of the least
developed telecom systems in Africa, but two entrepreneurs there just
put up a three-story building that is completely wired. They're now
running a computer training center, an Internet cafe and a marketing
business for next-generation information technology solutions. You
should see the colorful web page designs now coming out of Africa by
their own Webmasters."
Sure, it's just one building in a big continent, but that's how it starts.
Americans don't realize that when they go to the doctor and get examined
and the doctor dictates his notes from the examination onto a tape, that
tape often gets shipped on the Web to a housewife in Ireland who
transcribes it in her spare time for a fee and then sends the transcript
back on the Web. There is no reason, with some basic English education
and digital infrastructure, that Africans cannot get into this lucrative area
of telecomputing and data processing.
No, the Internet will not solve the problems between Hutu and Tutsi in
central Africa or cure AIDS in Kenya. And yes, power in Africa still
resides with those with the guns, not those with the phones. Africa's
tribal and economic problems will not be solved overnight or on line.
But all of these problems are related to, or exacerbated by, chronic
underdevelopment, and the Internet gives Africans a new tool to leapfrog
back into the game.
In 1977 there was a movie, "Black and White in Color" about French and
German army units that were caught in West Africa at the end of World
War I, but because the local newspapers were six months old, they never
got the news that the war was over, so they went on fighting while the
Africans watched in amusement.
"If they made that movie today it would be about how Deutschtelekom
and France Cable et Radio were competing over who will get to
privatize the telephone system in Senegal by offering the most
connections at the cheapest cost," argued Mr. Lowenthal. "If you don't
factor the Web into your analysis of Africa, you're going to miss
something. We're just two years away from large numbers of people in
Africa being able to tell their own story, and that has got to impact
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