Computers can do many things, but can they make poor countries richer? One
of the leading researchers when it comes to the impact of information and communication
technology (ICT) on development is the World Bank’s Charles Kenny,
who added no fewer than four fully-researched papers to his blog
today. To mark the occasion, I had a conversation with him by email, reproduced
FS: The poorest people in the world clearly need a lot of
things — food, shelter, even access to a telephone — much more than they need
internet access. And besides, the poorest people in the world are often illiterate,
which by definition means they’re not going to be able to do much with a computer.
But in middle-income high-literacy countries such as Chile, one might expect
an internet boom. Yet you
cite an OECD
study from 2000 which found that although 95% of the population was literate,
only 20% of the population was literate enough to usefully use a computer.
So my first question: Have things changed since 2000? You say in your other
paper that 62% of schools in Chile are now online. Does this mean that when
kids graduate from those schools they’re likely to be not only literate but
computer-literate? Or will the computers in those schools likely be used mainly
by the minority of children who would have become computer literate anyway?
CK: It’s worth noting the OECD study was talking about comparatively
advanced usage — learning online, for example — rather than basic applications.
I’m sure the short answer to your question is that things are getting better
in Chile. How computers are used in schools is a complex question even in the
US, with studies suggesting that they don’t have much impact on educational
outcomes unless they’re carefully integrated into the curriculum, teachers are
well trained and so on. But Chile is a step ahead on this –their Enlaces
program was one of the earliest to tackle these kinds of questions. So I’d
guess the percentage of kids equipped to benefit from online learning is growing,
and as they get older, the percentage of Chileans who can bank online, or pay
parking tickets online, will also grow.
What I find worrying about the OECD statistic is that it involves a country
that is pretty rich by global standards — an income per capita more than six
times the average in Sub-Saharan Africa, for example. If the number of people
with the kind of literacy needed for advanced online use is that low in Chile,
what is it going to look like in Mali or Mauritania? And how far are computers
going to spread in Sub-Saharan schools where, once you’ve paid for teachers,
you have maybe $5 per primary student per year to pay for buildings, chalk and
textbooks — let alone IT classrooms?
FS: I looked at the OECD report, and it says that Level 3
skills — which is what you were referring to — are "considered a suitable
minimum for coping with the demands of everyday life and work in a complex,
advanced society. It denotes roughly the skill level required for successful
secondary school completion and college entry." There are two skill levels
— 4 and 5 — above Level 3. The skill level needed to understand Market Movers,
say, is at least Level 4, and possibly Level 5. To achieve Level 3, you need
to be able to read four film reviews and decide which one is the least favorable,
or read an article about cotton diapers and write three reasons why the author
prefers cotton diapers to disposable ones. My feeling is that to get real value
out of the World Wide Web using a web browser, you’d need at least Level 3 literacy:
would you disagree?
In Chile, it turns out that just 11.6% of native-born Chileans between the ages
of 16 and 65 have Level 3 literacy. (67% of second-language foreign-born Chileans
do, though, which brings the overall numbers up.) Only 1.3% of native-born Chileans
have Level 4 or 5 literacy. By contrast, the numbers for the US are 34% of native-born
at Level 3, and 21.1% of native-born at Level 4 or 5. These are additive, putting
well over 50% of US-born Americans at Level 3 or above. The numbers for Sweden
are 40.3% and 37.3% respectively, giving a total of 77.6% at Level 3 or above.
Only Portugal comes close to the Chile numbers, with 16.7% at Level 3 and another
3.2% at Levels 4 or 5.
It seems to me that the ability to use a computer is a function of your education,
much more than the other way around. In other words, there’s not much point
in putting computers in schools where the kids aren’t educated enough to use
them. In Africa, I’m sure you’d have the situation where even many teachers
aren’t literate to computer-using level. Might that be the case in Chile, too?
Is there much point in spending lots of money introducing computers to countries
where most of the population isn’t literate enough to use them? Or is something
important happening among today’s youth? Is there some reality to the concept
of a post-literate society, where kids might not be very literate on the OECD
scale, but can still be very proficient with computers?
CK: I’m sure Market Movers requires a level six. Or at least
some of the stuff on subprime mortgages does.
There’s the famous example of the
hole in the wall in India, where Sugata Mitra put a computer in the wall
of a slum and watched what happened, which suggests that kids with hardly any
access to formal education can do some basic stuff on computers like navigate
websites — they found Disney.com pretty quick, apparently. Of course, that
doesn’t prove that children can use the web for learning without instruction
— and most of the evidence points the other way. You can use computers as a
learning tool to teach literacy and numeracy, as well as to teach IT skills,
but in order to do that you need teachers with high ICT literacy themselves,
a solid curriculum, plenty of teacher training and lots of computers. As you
suggest, these conditions are lacking in many parts of the world.
But it’s a leap to go from there to saying ‘developing countries don’t need
computers.’ You don’t need universal computer literacy for IT to have a vital
role in business and government operations. Survey evidence suggests that 58
percent of businesses in Tanzania were using email in 2003, for example. Budgeting
and finance, communications, procurement… there are lots of roles for IT even
in the poorest countries. More broadly, when we look at information and communications
technologies as a whole, there are applications that are being used successfully
by even some of the very poorest people in the World — mobile telephony, school
instruction supported by radio programming, same language subtitling on television
programs. All of this stuff is spreading rapidly, and can be supported by web-based
applications running in the back office. So, the role for IT is different. Universal
computer ownership, or universal access to computers in schools, might be an
inappropriate goal for many — most– countries, but selective use of IT to
achieve development results will continue to be important.