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Technology Boosts Income, Reduces Poverty In Developing Countries

In recent years, rapid technological progress has helped raise income and alleviate poverty in many developing countries. The spread of cell phones, computers, and other technological innovations has generated economic growth, while also improving health care and agricultural production in developing nations. But these nations still have a long way to go to catch up to the developed world. VOA's Bill Rodgers explores the impact of technology on the developing world, with some additional reporting from Aisha Khan in Pakistan, Cathy Majtenyi in Rwanda, and Ahadian Utama in Indonesia.

Traditional healer Musa Kayairanga of Rwanda uses herbs and ointments to treat his patients, and over the years he has learned a lot about natural medicines.

After learning how to use the computer at a rural Rwandan telecenter, the 62-year old healer says he now exchanges information with other herbal doctors as far away as Canada.

I have been exchanging experiences with them, he says, and now I have improved my knowledge of herbs and plants to treat people.

This ability to communicate from such remote regions shows how technology is changing life in developing countries.

"Technological progress is ultimately probably the most important driver of incomes, of growth in developing countries," said Andrew Burns, the lead economist at the World Bank, and main author of a recent report on technology in developing nations.

The study found that technology has spread faster in emerging economies than in rich nations. It also found that technological progress has helped raise incomes in developing countries and reduced the share of people living in absolute poverty from 29 percent in 1990 to 18 percent in 2004.

"When we take a look at who are the good performers in terms of income growth, in terms of improving living standards, those are the countries that have the highest rate of technological progress," said Burns. "So for example, in East Asia and the Pacific we see something in the range of four and five percent per annum improvements in productivity."

Advances in communications technologies have spurred the growth of so-called call centers, centralized offices where most of the phone calls for a particular business can be answered. These centers, often located in countries like India or Pakistan, where wages are relatively low, serve both domestic and international markets and have contributed to economic growth by providing well-paid jobs and new skills to workers who otherwise might not have had such opportunities.

"It improves my language skills, it improves my sales skills, it improves my confidence and all that. It gives you experience how to work, how to deal with people," Ahsan Saeed, a young call center worker in Karachi, Pakistan.

But it is the cell phone that has transformed lives and business more than anything else. Eighty percent of the earth's population now lives within range of a cell phone network, a development that opens up enormous opportunities.

Arthur Molella, who heads the Smithsonian Institution's Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation in Washington, says these phones are having all kinds of impacts.

"They have a definite democratizing effect in traditional countries, or countries with fairly rigid hierarchies and clearly they are a way to get around a lot of restrictions," he said. "So there's a subversive aspect to these things, of both governments and of customs."

So when repressive governments conduct violent crackdowns on dissent - such as in Burma last year - the world knows about it almost instantly via cell phone pictures and the Internet. This has helped mobilize international pressure on such regimes, perhaps preventing even worse bloodshed than in the past when information was slow to get out.

Yet experts say the spread of technology in the developing world will not necessarily bring western-style progress or prosperity. "They're changing these cultures the way they are changing the West, that's very clear," said Molella of the Lemelson Center. "But they are being adapted in different ways in these countries. They don't always have to serve the purposes of progress, let's say in the American sense."

However, it is clear fewer lives are mired in poverty, and more are benefiting from the opportunities made possible by the spread of technology.