Access to information in developing countries is limited. There are many reasons for this ranging from social, cultural and political factors to lack of an adequate infrastructure to guarantee information flows within countries. National governments have hitherto been in a privileged position in many developing countries when it comes to getting information on specific developmental issues.
Many key decision makers do not receive up-to-date information needed to implement key policies, and other sectors of society, like non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and national businesses, have an even more restricted access to information.
Developing countries have been for many years net exporters of information. It is not surprising to find more information on a specific developing country in Washington, for example, than in the country itself. Moreover within most countries the little information that exists is either in private hands or it does not flow out from government institutions.
The rapid development of information technologies and computer-mediated communications has started to change this. For the first time in history the democratization of information seems plausible at relatively moderate costs for users from all nations.
The Sustainable Human Development Networking Programme (SDNP), a computer-mediated communication project of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), addresses issues of information flow by fostering information sharing within developing countries, empowering users and helping decision makers on issues related to sustainable human development. The project was launched in May 1992, with 12 countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. To date some 20 countries are operational with SDNPs or will be shortly (Angola, Chad, Indonesia, South Pacific region [over 15 islands], Pakistan, Philippines, Nicaragua, Honduras, Bolivia, Cameroon, Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia, Korea, Colombia, Guatemala, Chile, Mexico, India and Costa Rica). Another 40 countries have requested help to get involved.
The main objective of SDNP is to connect via computer networks users and providers of information on sustainable human development. Information exchange and dissemination are key components of the project.
SDNP fosters the "culture" of information exchange among institutions, organizations and all other actors that play a role in the implementation of sustainable human development at national and regional levels. SDNP nodes are autonomous, non-profit national organizations that receive financial support from UNDP.
The SDNP concept consists of the following concepts:
SDNP Structure and Financing
Within each participating country, SDNP promotes the creation of a National Steering Committee in which all sectors of society (government, NGOs, private sector, academia, etc.) are equally represented. In addition, UNDP, via its local office, is part of the committee. The committee usually has 10 members and holds meetings at least once a month. Its main task is to promote the SDNP concept and to serve as a forum for the sharing of ideas and proposals.
A National SDNP Coordinator is selected through open competition within the country. The coordinator is responsible for the actual implementation of the project and must have a clear understanding of sustainable development. The Coordinator, with the help of a small staff, works in conjunction with the Steering Committee.
The financial role of UNDP in the SDNP project is catalytic. Funding is provided as a starting point with the idea that the projects will look for alternative sources of financing from the very start.
The average annual budget for a SDNP site is $100,000 (US) to cover personnel, computer and networking equipment, telecommunication costs, and seminars and workshops, among other items. Each SDNP can decide on how to distribute the budget among the different items. Large budgets for personnel are not welcomed.
The first phase of country projects lasts two to three years. A second phase is acceptable, but the level of financing by UNDP could be reduced by as much as 50% or more.
SDNP Connectivity and Internet Access
Access to the Internet is a key element in the establishment of SDNP projects. The Internet provides many information sources for developing countries at no cost - unlike commercial information providers which charge for both access and the information itself.
However, only about 30 developing countries are equipped with a full Internet link. In many cases the connections are still too slow (9,600 bps) to allow effective use of such tools as FTP and Gopher - never mind WWW and the other high-tech tools that have high (i.e., expensive) bandwidth requirements. In addition, access to the Internet is usually restricted to a few institutions.
SDNP New York estimates that the average cost for connecting any given developing country to the Internet is approximately $9,000 (US) a month (for a high speed link, i.e., 64 kbps) or more than $100,000 (US) a year. Equipment costs vary, but should not be more than $20,000 (US) for a national node.
Postal, telephone and telegraph agencies (PTTs) play a key role in the connectivity picture, as they are the ones who determine rate structures. In Pakistan, for example, the national PTT was asking for $15,000 (US) a month for a 9.6 kbps link to the Internet - and this only for the Pakistani side of the connection.
Another key element is human resources. Technical expertise is limited in developing countries. Familiarity with Internet protocols is growing all over the world, but further training and national capacity building are needed. In Honduras, for example, SDNP had a difficult time finding a UNIX expert. When one was found, the expert demanded a salary which SDNP could not afford. As a result, SDNP has begun a training program to provide an expert in the short term and to create adequate backup and replacements in the long term.
As Internet connection problems are addressed, non-interactive access to the Internet is a viable alternative. The use of dial-up store and forward networks, such as UUCP and Fidonet, provides access to the Internet at a much lower cost both in terms of financial and human resources.
Unlike Internet links which have a fixed cost per year independent from traffic, store and forward systems have fixed costs per each character or byte exchanged. Thus, existing telephone rates set up by national PTTs become an important factor. In many developing countries, international call rates to the United States and/or Europe are very high. For example in the English speaking Caribbean the cost of a one-minute call to the United States is of roughly $3 (US). In the South Pacific region costs are even higher. These rate structures often make the cost of fax transmission prohibitive, thus encouraging electronic mail as a more effective way of exchanging information.
To avoid paying the national PTT rates in developing countries, SDNP "polls" its store and forward sites and then bills them. That is, calls are originated in New York and billed at U.S. rates, which typically are less than 50% than those established by national PTTs.
The current trend in the telecommunications industry is toward liberalization and opening of the markets. As competition comes to developing countries, it is expected that the monopolistic rates set up by national PTTs will begin to crumble and reflect more directly the actual costs. However, if national PTTs do no adjust to the process they might disappear altogether under the pressure of the large international telecommunications companies.
SDNP Information and Capacity Building
SDNP is not in the business of data collection; rather it is an identifier of key (and existing) sources of information relevant to sustainable human development (not only environment) for SDNP country sites both at the national and international levels. SDNP is more interested meta-data collection and it fosters, for example, the creation of national directories of organizations and experts that can help in the process of development. The SDNP team in each country is responsible for doing this and making the information available online for all interested users.
Information is basically disseminated via computer networks ranging from low-level dial-up connections like Fido and UUCP to full Internet connections. Country SDNPs are responsible for building basic national networks (low cost) that will give access to information to all sectors of society.
SDNP makes use of existing UNDP networks in addition to Internet connectivity. SDNP has also developed UUCP networks in three to four countries all connected to UNDP via SDNP headquarters.
One of the main tasks of national SDNPs is not only to install the computer equipment and software required for networking, but also to provide the capacity necessary to use such systems in an effective manner. In this regard, at least two aspects are emphasized for SDNP users: training on information sources (or information on information, where to search, etc.) and use of the information obtained. These are two separate, but closely related, elements. The first provides the capacity to look for specific information (demand-driven) and the second builds the capacity of institutions and organizations (including NGOs and decision makers) to make adequate use of the information obtained according to their specific goals.
A quick glance at networking and information systems activities shows that a large number of efforts are underway. Unfortunately, one can also see evidence of a lack of coordination among some projects and, in some cases, duplication and competition within countries.
One of the principles of SDNP is precisely to avoid such problems. Partnerships and other forms of collaboration and cooperation are sought from the very start if a country already has an existing network or is in the process of developing one. In addition, SDNP seeks cooperation with the private sector and NGOs and they are in fact part of the project and constitute its main targets.
SDNP's participatory approach allows for such developments and will contribute to the expansion of the Global Village for all sectors of society in developing countries.
At the request of the French Prime Minister, a report on the information highways has been prepared by a team led by Gerard Thery, France Telecom, known as the father of Minitel. Even before its publication, the report attracted a great deal of attention and criticism. Four major recommendations are made within the report: development of a nationwide fiber optic network; pilot demonstration and experimentation sites; support to software and information services producers; and development of ATM. The report, Les autoroutes de l'information, is now available from La Documentation francaise, 124 rue Henri Barbusse, 93308 Aubervilliers, France; FAX: +33-1-48 39 56 01.
IT Magazine (Autumn 1994) presents a summary of the 2nd edition of the European Information Technology Observatory report. The European Union is said to represent 29% of the world market for information and communication technologies. Other European countries account for 7%; the United States for 37%; Japan for 16%; and the four Asian tigers for 3%. That leaves 8% for the rest of the world, where the majority of the human population resides.