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Internet or Toilets?

Uwe Deichmann's picture

The following post is the first in a series exploring 'internet for development,' the theme of the World Bank's upcoming World Development Report 2016.

Why should we invest in internet access in developing countries when there are more important problems like providing clean toilets? That was one of the questions posed to Vint Cerf following his recent presentation on Emerging Internet Trends that will Shape the Global Economy here at the World Bank. Vint is one of the “Fathers of the Internet”. In the 1970s he was part of a small team that developed the protocols and standards that guide the open, global communication system that we all rely on every day. Today he is Google’s Chief Internet Evangelist and a preeminent thinker about the current state and future of the internet.

Vint’s presentation was the second seminar organized by the World Development Report 2016 (WDR): Internet for Development. This World Development Report (WDR) will look at the impact of the internet – in a broad sense – on businesses, people and governments. And it will evaluate policies in the information and communication technology (ICT) sector and in complementary sectors that will help countries receive the highest social and economic returns from those investments. In his wide-ranging talk and in a meeting with the WDR team, Vint touched on all of those issues. Here are a few of his thoughts.

Commenting on the difficulties faced by every WDR in obtaining up-to-date economic data, he pointed to new approaches that use the internet for real-time monitoring (or “nowcasting”) of economic indicators. Such continuous information flows help establish norms and thus make it easier to detect—and react to—deviations from such norms.

New technologies will change the nature of work, making many routine jobs redundant. That means the nature of jobs will change frequently. In the ICT sector itself, in companies such as Google, the notion of life-long learning is already imperative and the same will be true in many other fields. This has clear implications for education policies.

Vint challenged the World Bank to play an active role in internet governance. With the future of the current governance model uncertain, he worries about the survival of today’s unified and largely open global internet. Besides financing internet infrastructure and assistance for ICT policy development, he suggested that the World Bank can use its convening power to encourage an international and multi-stakeholder agreement that ensures the broadest possible benefits from the internet.

On the question whether investing in greater internet access is important in light of many other development challenges, Vint had this to say. He thinks that for many development challenges, affordable and sustainable solutions have to emerge locally. For this to happen, communities and local governments need access to education and to information about ideas from all over the world.

Seen in this light, the internet becomes an effective tool to help address many pressing problems. Innovative solutions from around the world that the WDR2016 will document and evaluate suggest that this is indeed the case. A great example is Digital Green, which uses Youtube to deliver rural extension services. This does not mean that internet access is the most important development priority. As Bill Gates frequently points out, solving some of the persistent health challenges like polio or malaria is arguably more pressing. But, as Vint Cerf pointed out, the internet will have an increasingly important role as an enabler of development across practically all sectors – even if the solution to the internet access problem will probably not be to drop free AOL CDs from planes, as comedian Stephen Colbert suggested to Vint Cerf on his show the day after the World Bank event.