Help the World Connect

The Wall Street Journal

If you want to make a dent in the real problems of poor people around the
world, don't fund another panel of experts to do a major report on global
hunger, overpopulation, global poverty, global illiteracy, child labor or
ethnic strife. Don't create a program, institute or project staffed by earnest
young political scientists and economics postdocs. Don't convene a forum
of leading thinkers, CEOs, journalists, and statesmen at a conference
center in Aspen, Jackson Hole, Vale, Davos, Geneva or any other beautiful
locale. This has all been done, sometimes usefully, but it's not what's most
needed now.

Instead, work from the bottom up. Do the 21st-century equivalent of what
Andrew Carnegie did a century ago: Build public libraries for the world's
digital have-nots. I don't mean giant marble-edificed, intimidating
Greek-columned places downtown, housing millions of tomes. I mean
small, quiet, safe, pocket-sized places in poor neighborhoods and
communities like Bridgeport, Conn., Pauso Alegre, Brazil, and Kankan,
Guinea, where digital have-nots can gain access to the accumulated
knowledge of mankind.

Over the past three decades the income gap between the world's richest
fifth and its poorest fifth has more than doubled, to 74 to 1. The digital gap
threatens to widen it considerably more. Less than 1% of the globe's
Internet users are in South Asia, where 23% of the world's population
resides. The cost of a single computer is more than what the average
Bangladeshi earns in eight years. In several African nations, the monthly
charge for an Internet connection approaches $100. Even in the U.S.,
which has the greatest density of Internet users, the number of users in
poor neighborhoods is 1/20th that of richer neighborhoods.

Imagine thousands of small libraries replete with computers and satellite
uplinks to the Internet. First and foremost, the libraries could help
overcome illiteracy, the single greatest impediment to upward mobility,
which now condemns almost 30% of the world's adults to ignorance and
isolation. The libraries would contain educational software for reading and
writing, and teachers to explain how to use the software and to offer
further guidance. The libraries would house real books, but even more
books on CD-ROM, and all the rest of the world's books would be available
via the Internet, to be downloaded into personal-reading devices that
people could take home with them.

The libraries would also be places where people could learn the rudiments
of good health, hygiene and safety. Most of the worldÕs poor are
far-removed from doctors and teachers. But through computers and the
Internet, local residents could converse with doctors and teachers beamed
onto screens from hundreds or thousands of miles away. They could
discuss best practices for improving child health and nutrition, avoiding
unwanted pregnancies and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.
They could learn how to make drinking water safe and how best to irrigate
their land. They could learn the best techniques for mediating ethnic
conflicts and peacefully resolving territorial disputes.

Thus linked to software and teachers, the poor could also gain marketable
skills. They could learn how to start their own business, and get access to
the lowest-cost -financing and other resources. They, might even do
certain work for pay right there at the library's computer, such as routine
software coding for global enterprises.

If this sounds far-fetched, it's not. There's already a tiny scattering of such
libraries around the world. In Pondicherry, India, the M.S. Swaminthan
Research Foundation and a staff of teachers have put together some
secondhand computers and an Internet uplink to create a learning center
for literacy, healthcare, and new skills. In Egypt, where there's only one
Internet user for every 1,600 people, an Internet-linked library has been
established in the governorate of Sharkeya, offering distance learning in a
broad range of subjects including Web page design and desktop
publishing. Local residents are beginning to sell their skills on the Web.

Most people who are poor do not want to be poor, but they do not know
the route out of poverty. They need knowledge. Good schools are a
necessity for the young. But libraries that link human minds with the
wisdom of humankind can show the way for everyone. Rather than
widening the gap between the global haves and have-nots, the Internet
could begin to narrow it.

For this to work requires not only money but also vision, and a subtle
understanding of how technology is best used in different cultures. In the
new digital age, this should be feasible. What more appropriate goal for a
foundation funded by Bill Gates?

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