By Cockerill, Matthew J.; Knols, Bart G. J.
Issues in Science and Technology , Vol. 24, No. 2
Kofi Annan, then secretary-general of the United Nations, noted in 2002 that "[A] wide consensus has emerged on the potential of information and communications technologies (ICT) to promote economic growth, combat poverty, and facilitate the integration of developing countries into the global economy. Seizing the opportunities of the digital revolution is one of the most pressing challenges we face."
The intervening five years have seen a rapid expansion in the reach of digital technology to encompass much of the developing world. Top-down efforts such as the One Laptop per Child initiative, now commencing production of its sub-$200 laptop, represent one approach. Arguably more significant, however, is the change that is being driven from within developing countries. In the area of mobile telephony, for example, Africa has generally been neglected as a marketplace by the major international telecom companies, but this has not prevented domestic mobile phone companies from adding subscribers at a spectacular rate. The number of mobile phones in Africa has doubled in the past two years, and there are now more than 200 million mobile phone users on the continent: 10 times the number of landlines. Although cellular modems are not the ideal way to connect to the Internet, this is nevertheless an enormous leap in access.
As a result of these trends, developing countries are now more connected than ever before, and the digital infrastructure that now exists has the potential to transform access to knowledge. The primary obstacles are no longer technological but are related to issues of content licensing, distribution, and access control.
Access to knowledge is clearly a fundamental requirement for development. It is difficult to see how the following United Nations Millennium Development Goals can be effectively achieved without ensuring that developing countries have access to the latest relevant scientific and medical knowledge:
* Reduce child mortality
* Improve maternal health
* Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases
* Ensure environmental sustainability
* Develop a global partnership for development
In particular, a global partnership aimed at addressing development issues would be hugely facilitated by a "knowledge commons" to ensure that developing and developed country researchers are not operating in isolation from one another.
Solutions to problems in the developing world depend on full and effective collaboration between those working in the developed and developing worlds. Leaving low-income countries to fend entirely for themselves in the face of problems that can be addressed using current scientific knowledge is not an ethically or morally acceptable choice. But nor is "parachuting in" solutions that have been developed entirely in the developed world without reference to local knowledge. The history of development cooperation is full of examples of attempted solutions imposed by the North on the South that lack the participatory elements crucial for socioeconomic acceptance and uptake.
In combination with appropriate local skills and expertise, online access to the latest research can help low-income countries not only deal with practical priorities in areas such as public health and agriculture but also provide a vital starting point to developing their own research capacity. M. S. Swaminathan, a key participant in India's Green Revolution and now an active proponent of the role of access to knowledge in development, warns that "Many developing countries remain poor largely because they let the Industrial Revolution pass them by. They can ill afford to miss the information technology revolution."
The importance of ensuring that developing countries have access to the latest medical research was recognized by the World Health Organization in 2000, and this led to the HINARI initiative, a partnership with research publishers that provides free or low-cost online access to medical journals for researchers working in the poorest countries. …