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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.


Submitted by P S Mohanan on

I feel that it should be internet and toilet. Priority can change from country to country and state to state. A toilet is as important for the poor in Uttar Pradesh, India as it is important to connect them to the world through internet. Information is essential. It can lead to behaviour change. Open defecation is a menace. Toilet is a priority, but construction needs money.

Submitted by Lawrence Michael on

I agree. It helps in providing psychological cushions against mal-governance, despair and wretchedness that is so prevalent in South Asia and elsewhere. It also increases a certain accountability and awareness - given that everyone can access the internet and have access to information that should be used the moment some gentleman or lady from those regions & responsible for the misery, even if partially, are taken to task before they confuse the rest of the world with public toilets too. Like they confuse their citizens with.

Submitted by April m on

With internet, people can access the information they need to solve their own problems - like how to construct a healthy septic system in their community or any other endeavour to help improve their quality of life. I agree internet should be priority.

If you just go and install "healthy toilets" for "them," "they" will not learn anything; "they" will not know how to do repairs or how to upkeep the system, and "they" won't be able to teach their neighbors or future generations how to build the same system, so "they" will continue needing and relying on help from external sources (the people/nations that gave them the toilets). Teach them (or offer a resource like the internet that enables them to learn on their own), and they will not need outsiders to come build them "healthy toilets."

Reminds me of an old proverb: "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and he'll feed himself for a lifetime."

Submitted by Qiuchi on

I would be really interested in seeing how many topics will be covered in the report. As one of the previous comments states, having internet access might not be many countries' priority if a majority of their citizens do not even have basic needs of life. At the same time, in a more developed country, where internet access a common thing, people start to raise more questions about a larger impact internet might generate, from open government to SME linkage, from cyber security to net neutrality etc. There are millions of topics to discuss. I wonder what topics will be included in the report.

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