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Bringing Down the 21st Century Berlin Wall

True to the theme of partnerships at the Harvard International Development Conference the Technology in Development panel on the second day of the conference, engaged the following panelists: Sakiko Fukuda, Director of the UNDP Report on Technology and Development; Jorge Quiroga Ramirez, Vice President of Bolivia; Moderator Ernest Wilson, Professor of Development at the University of Maryland; Iqbal Quadir, founder of Grameen Phone; and John Gage, Chief Researcher and Director of the Sun Office for Sun Microsystems. Professor Wilson opened by speaking about the importance of access, including technological infrastructure; cognitive, training, design, and content relevance; and institutional and political factors. Ms. Fukuda proceeded by stating that the biggest problem is not access, but the need for developing countries to develop products themselves, instead of being recipients of technology. Many believe that there is a similar argument for agricultural advancement and AIDS drugs manufacturing.

VP Quiroga stated that there is a “21st Century Berlin Wall” that is not between countries, but within countries, in the sense that the elites have access and the others do not. Technology, VP Quiroga states, is a great benefit of globalization and not a hindrance as some criticize. He believes that legislation and access to microcredit (lending in small amounts such as $50-1000) is as critical as basic education. The government is needed to actively push these programs forward and points to the success stories of the Asian countries and even the US in guiding technological advancement. VP Quiroga also pointed out that access to internet technology, unlike textiles, is not a zero sum game. Many have criticized the audacity of developed countries to ask for free trade and IP protection for software while there are still protectionist policies in textiles in the MultiFiber Agreement. However, VP Quiroga believes that the internet can lead to improved productivity for all without causing great upheavals in terms of winners and losers. He feels the biggest question is sustainability of technology transfers and programs, and he has taken it upon himself to lead the Bolivian government in moving forward on these issues.

Founder of Grameen Phone, Iqbal Quadir related his struggle and success in starting the wonder of connectivity in the rural areas of Bangladesh. Grameen Bank lends small amounts of money to poor people-primarily women-to help them buy a cow or another such product that would make them more efficient. Mr. Quadir asked leaders of the Bank, “Is not a cell phone like a cow?” That is, doesn’t it improve connectivity and doesn’t connectivity improve productivity? They all agreed and now there are 250,000 cell phone subscribers in rural Bangladesh.

Mr. Quadir further stated that not all countries can push strongly from their state governments, as VP Quiroga and others have suggested. In the case of high centralization of power, it is impossible to break into the enclave, and most benefits continue to accrue to those already in power. Many have pointed to the problem that if technology is brought to a corrupt state, the technology will only benefit the leaders. However, Mr. Quadir challenged this view and stated that technology will fragment the power, as the disseminating power of technology-especially the internet-and connectivity give power to a greater number of people.

The panel ended with a rallying cry for students to invest in developing countries, and to seize entrepreneurial opportunities, especially in technology in countries that have a great deal more to offer than many developed countries.

April 17, 2001
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