Paying Lip Service to the Digital Divide

One of the immutable laws of life, love and electronic commerce is that the haves will seldom give to the have-nots, unless forced to at gunpoint or knife-point — or coaxed from the far side of a tax loophole. That is why I am constantly amazed by the bewilderment expressed by leaders of underdeveloped countries at the conclusion of an international financial summit.

Whether the big gathering is for the United Nations, the Group of Eight, the World Trade Organization, the World Bank or the World Series, events always play out the same. Leaders of the world’s poorest nations leave for the airport, empty-handed and blank-eyed, dodging protesters as though in a dream.

What were they expecting? That the actions of the rich would actually coincide with their lofty words?

Political Posturing

It was an instant replay at the recent summit of the Group of Eight (the seven wealthiest nations in the world, with Russia thrown in so everyone would have a dance partner.) These summits are supposed to tackle the tough global issues of the day, and indeed there was a time when they did.

But in recent years, they have turned into photo ops and political platforms. The issues are too broad and too complicated for the leaders to actually do anything of substance. This year’s G8 summit was the equivalent of a political rally by an American presidential hopeful, with the candidate telling the boisterous crowd what the polls indicate the people want to hear.

Same Old Song

The poor need money for high-tech infrastructure. They say it again and again, until the rich nations — always anxious over the chance that the under-classes might rise up in revolt — say fine, we agree to a debt relief program. But then they make the eligibility requirements so stringent, the program gets bogged down in bureaucratic muck.

It is as easy to become frustrated with the poor countries as it is to sympathize with them. There is little room for a moral argument that they do not deserve the help of their wealthier, global neighbors, but it is also plain that they could be doing more to help themselves.

For example, I was once a foreign correspondent in a developing Caribbean country. It was then considered one of the more well-off countries in the neighborhood, with a progressive economy and a stable government.

Yet, every time I heard the country’s ministers speaking on international issues — whether during personal interviews or at local, regional or international summits — I heard the recurring refrain: “Give us money so we won’t be left behind. We can’t do it ourselves.” The constant begging grew tiresome.

‘Ain’t Going To Happen’

One day I attended a relatively minor summit where an expert with impeccable credentials in international finance bluntly told the audience what it was afraid to hear: “It ain’t going to happen.”

This economist made his presentation directly after a high ranking government official gave the usual poor-pitiful-us spiel to an audience full of other government officials, business people and journalists.

All of a sudden, the crowd grew unnaturally attentive. This, in essence, was the economist’s message: “You can wait until hell freezes over, but human nature will not suddenly reverse itself. If you want to reap the benefits of the new digital age, you will have to help yourselves.”

It was so quiet, you could have heard a mouse click.

Turning a Deaf Ear

He did not stop there. He had done his research. He provided the country with a dozen ways it could help itself join the IT age, from niche Internet marketing — the country has one of the richest teak forests in the hemisphere — to establishing high-tech training centers for the many unemployed and underemployed, to opening up its telecommunications industry.

The speaker was by far the most provocative at the otherwise dull seminar, and the question and answer session that followed his presentation was also the most lively. But the next day there was not one word about his talk in the local press, even though other speakers received heavy coverage. Was it a media conspiracy? Or simply the recognition that no one wanted to dance to that tune?

The G8 countries know that global equality in e-commerce will increase competition, open markets and help consumers. But judging from their consistent all talk, no action posturing, they expect the underdeveloped countries to figure out how to narrow the gap by themselves.

The world will begin to see progress toward closing the digital divide when the poor countries absorb that plain fact and find ways to move forward on their own. Or when tax laws favor the lower class, pigs fly, or Larry Ellison concedes that Bill Gates is the better man — whichever comes first.

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