Chennai “Policy Makers’ Workshop”

The digital divide seems to be all the rage these days. Take for instance the recent two days I spent in Chennai. The M S Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) had organized a Policy Makers’ Workshop at their campus in Chennai on October 8th and 9th. The workshop was supported by two “Canadian crown corporations”, the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). (Those two have a budget of about Canadian $100 million.)

The workshop was a great opportunity to meet many people from the goverment ranks, the private sector, and various NGOs. It was an honor to meet Prof. M.S.Swaminathan, of course. Two days is sufficient time to get to know at least a couple of people well. I was fortunate that I met many people who I would like to follow up with.

The information package for the workshop asked (among other questions):

Can ICTs be useful for rural and remote areas of developing countries, especially the poverty-stricken regions?

The two days gave me an opportunity to reflect on the issues that the participants raised. I think it would be useful for me to create a framework within which I can discuss the various specifics of debated by the participants of the workshop. I will do so in a seemingly roundabout way because what I would like to do is not what a journalist or a reporter would do. I am seeking to explain something that is not trivial, neither in its conception or its impact. So it may be many days before I can say that I have made the point that I have set out to make.

The Dismal State of the World

From a recent speech by the World Bank President, Mr. Wolfensohn, one learns a number of facts about the world. For instance, 80% of the global GDP is owned by about 1 billion people (or 1/6th of the world’s population.) About 1 billion live on less than $1 a day.

The rich are not only fewer in number, but their numbers are projected to increase much slower than the increase in the number of poor. In the next 25 years, the rich nations would add only 50 million people more; thirty times that number, or 1.5 billion, would be added to the population of the world’s poor nations. That would only go to increase the poverty figures. Especially in sub-Saharan Africa, the absolute number of poor will actually grow. They are not going to meet the Millennium Development Goals for sure.

Development assistance from the the rich nations to the poor is an impressive $56 billion a year. That figure is no longer impressive when you learn that agricultural subsidies that rich farmers receive worldwide is $300 billion. That subsidy is at least a major factor in the impoverishment of the farmers in developing countries. In a globalized world, there is a strong link between agricultural subsidies in rich nations and the farmer suicides that are periodically reported in some developing nations.

Whatever be the dismal state of affairs, what is more disturbing is the trend. Development assistance fell from 0.5% of GDP of rich nations in the early 1960s to a mere 0.22% today. Compared to $56 billion of assistance, the world spends $600 billion on ‘defense’. Weapons’ spending dwarfs development spending worldwide.

It is important to recognize that one of the leading factors of the persistent and ubiquitous misery globally is the ‘defense’ expenditure of nations both rich and poor. All the futzing around with bridging the so called digital divide is pointless unless we also simultaneoulsy deal with the fact that we are awash in an ocean of weapons.