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Give Africans the BlackBerry -- and they will do the job


Dan Latendre, Kitchener-Waterloo Record, Mar 11

What do computers, cellphones and BlackBerrys have to do with eradicating extreme poverty in Africa? Quite a bit as it turns out.
"Information and communication technologies" (or ICTs) is a new buzz phrase when it comes to social and economic development.
As defined by Harvard's Cyber Law, information and communication technologies are the building blocks of the networked world. They include tele- communications technologies such as telephone, cable, satellite and radio, plus digital technologies such as computers, handheld devices, information networks and software.
All of these items have become an integral part of the global information economy and more attention is being focused on the gap in accessibility to them between developed and developing nations. This disparity has been termed the "digital divide." Developing countries, especially those in Africa, need tremendous help in technology and infrastructure support to cross this divide, which continues to differentiate "haves" from "have-nots."
The Internet, e-mail and wireless devices such as cellphones and handheld devices such as Research In Motion's BlackBerry have become widely accepted as standard tools that help to improve co-ordination, planning and information sharing in our ever-expanding world.
So how can they make a positive impact in the developing world, an area ravaged by hunger, poverty and diseases and an area with relatively little technological infrastructure and support?
FROM `en_the` beginning, the United Nations Information and Communication Technologies Task Force, formally created by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Nov. 20, 2003, has tried to build bridges and foster collaborative actions with other major initiatives in this area, in particular, the G8 Digital Opportunity Task Force (DOT Force) and its followup, the Development Gateway Foundation, the World Economic Forum and the Global Business Dialogue on Electronic Commerce, as well as key multilateral institutions and regional organizations.
The overall goal of the United Nations task force has been to serve as a spark plug for co-ordinated actions to help achieve maximum impact.
In 2000, at the United Nations Millennium Summit, world leaders established the Millennium Development Goals, a set of time-specific targets to combat challenges such as extreme hunger, poverty, infant mortality and deadly diseases -- and to provide primary education for every child.
The use of information and communication technologies has become an integral part of meeting the millennium goals and has created a few spin-offs, particularly the Millennium Villages Project.
This project, run by The Earth Institute at Columbia University in New York, is an on-the-ground approach to lifting developing-country villages -- these villages contain more than a billion people worldwide -- out of the malaise of poverty.
The Millennium Villages Project plans to illustrate successes on how to achieve the millennium goals, with clear targets for reducing poverty, hunger, disease, illiteracy, environmental degradation and discrimination against women by 2015.
And it is using information and communication technologies to cleave the Gordian knot that is now slowing the provision of necessary on-the-ground tangible aid in Africa.
The project is bringing about change by establishing Millennium Research Villages in 12 areas of sub-Saharan Africa. Sauri, Kenya and Koraro, Ethiopia are the first two villages.
The project's goal is to show what it takes to meet the eight millennium goals in these villages and show how that can be built out to a larger scale.
These villages will be empowered with proven and powerful information and communication technologies, such as satellite-fed Internet access that bubbles out into mini WiFi networks for the villages.
There will be computer labs and BlackBerrys for researchers, field officers and community members alike to use in relaying standard procedures -- such as how to improve farm productivity, health and education, and how to gain access to markets for products.
Early results in Kenya show that the Sauri villagers have gone FROM `en_chronic` hunger to a tripling of their crops and for the first time in years have been able to sell their produce in nearby markets. In Ethiopia, the Koraro villagers have also seen tremendous progress in a relatively short time.
The United Nations Information and Communication Technologies Task Force says that the gap in access to basic telecommunications services may be narrowing.
But the nature of the digital divide is shifting -- FROM `en_basic` to advanced telecommunication services and FROM `en_quantity` to quality of access.
We need to focus our attention on building and creating the infrastructure and tools -- that we utilize and access -- so that developing nations can evolve and become standing members in the global information economy.
Dan Latendre is chief information officer at the
Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo.

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