March 8, 2010 9 Comments
For the first time in over ten years, I spent the night without Internet access. Ten years of working in remote parts of Mongolia, Vietnam, Palestine, Indonesia, and other small and developing countries, and in March 2010 I finally hit the access wall. My hotel in Addis Ababa does not have Internet access. And not a single WiFi or wireless connection available nearby.
Maybe it is just not realistic to believe that in the year 2010 travelers or residents of a major city like Addis Ababa would enjoy the same sense of Internet entitlement we enjoy in other parts of the world. It is probably more realistic to think fresh water is a higher priority than Facebook. Probably a higher priority to think that basic nutrition is a higher priority to some people in the world than Twitter.
Having been plucked up from the opulence of Burbank, California, where Friday afternoon brought the amusement of watching about 50 SUVs and minivans queuing to pick up elementary and middle school children, as it is not reasonable to expect children to walk more than 100 yards from school to home, being denied email and net access for a night is shocking.
Does the Opulent World Owe the Developing World Anything?
There is an old phrase explaining that “nobody likes a victim.” When natural disasters occur, wars create a large number of refugees, or other events propel people to leave their homelands for safer places, the countries and people who are forced to absorb those refugees normally look at them with contempt. It is one thing to watch the impact of a typhoon or earthquake on a country via CNN, and maybe donate a few dollars to help bring food, but in most cases we want to watch a different story on the next day’s news, and we rarely welcome refugees with open arms into our community.
Easy to understand why. As a society and culture, wealthy countries have normally built their communities with hard work, and the residents enjoy the quality of life they’ve built. Visitors are welcome, but communities often find it difficult to absorb new people, particularly those with no money or have lost nearly everything they owned, into a community with a stable economy, school system, and social system.
We have some compassion for those who are in need, but much like driving past a major automobile accident on the freeway, we feel compelled to look, but then we drive past and soon forget the tragedy another human being is going through a few miles back on the road.
How We Reduce the Burden, and Strengthen our Global Community
For sure, Internet access may not purify or deliver water to those with a basic need. However education delivered to all levels of economic or social groups will potentially bring better intellectual capacity to those residents and leaders in poor and developing countries to plan for the future, with the ever-increasing capacity of taking care of their own problems. Educated people in most cases are simply better prepared to respond to disasters and problems when they occur.
Internet access is a very powerful tool in bringing basic and advanced education to any part of the world with a connection. When a student in Addis Ababa, or any other part of the country, has the same access to online lectures, course materials, and even formal education programs over the Internet, the national capacity for dealing with topics ranging from developing water strategies, to energy, to agriculture, to entertainment all become one small step easier to attain than if the developing country had to do it on their own.
But what about UN and other NGO Programs?
Like the community that does not want to be burdened with a long term, recurring commitment to absorbing refugees, global philanthropy has a time threshold. New disasters are happening daily. New wars are popping up around the world at the same rate as ever, and when your own disaster is falling behind the front page in priority, then it is the people of that location or country who eventually have to solve the problems on their own.
There are simply not enough resources, emotionally or economically to go around.
There is one common characteristic of communities which handle disaster better than others. They are well educated. California handles earthquakes and wildfires without bringing the state to a halt. France handles major flooding and other weather-related disasters, Okinawa finds Super-Typhoons a passing amusement, and Japan has tsunami response down to a science.
Sure, those countries have money, but even Japan and Germany started out with nearly no resources after the second war, and now are both economic powers. It is education, and the resolve of an educated society.
Back to the Internet
Delivering online resources to poor countries is becoming cheaper and more powerful every day. Wireless technologies are making fixed copper a legacy, and the cost of Netbooks and powerful workstations is dropping every day. Localization and language translation are becoming more powerful every day.
Don’t stop delivering clean water, but let’s carefully consider the long term impact of delivering a tool to the nations of the world, including the area I stayed in Addis Ababa, and give everybody access to the same intellectual development tools as our kids in Burbank.
Check out resources published by the World Bank, United Nations Development Program (UNDP), US Agency for International Development (USAID), and others to find how we might better support development of eLearning in the developing world, as well as development of basic infrastructure.