Whether Computers Can Help Poor and Middle-Income Countries

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?

Portugal, even?

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.

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