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Technology Changes the Developing World

In recent years, rapid technological progress has helped raise income and alleviate poverty in developing countries. The spread of cell phones, computers and other technological innovations has generated economic growth while improving health care and agricultural production in developing nations. But these countries still have a long way to go to catch up to the rest of the world.

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. Now he is able to share this information with more people, thanks to the computer and the Internet.

After learning how to use the computer at a rural telecenter, the 62-year old healer says he now exchanges e-mail with other herbal doctors as far away as Canada. "I have been exchanging experiences with them. And now I have improved my knowledge of herbs and plants to treat people," says Kayairanga.

The Pace of Progress

This ability to communicate from such a remote region 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," says 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 is spreading faster in emerging economies than in rich nations, even though the technology gap remains wide. It also found that technological progress has helped raise incomes in the developing world and reduced the share of people living in poverty from 29 percent in 1990 to 18 percent in 2004.

According to Andrew Burns, "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. 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 call centers in countries like India and Pakistan. These centers, serving domestic and international markets, have contributed to economic growth by providing well-paid jobs and new skills to workers who otherwise might not have had such opportunities.

Small Device, Big Impact

But it is the cell phone that has transformed lives and business, perhaps more than anything else. Eighty percent of the earth's population now lives within range of a cell phone network. And as of 2006, nearly 70 percent of the world's cell phone subscriptions were in developing countries.

Arthur Molella, who heads the Smithsonian Institution's Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation in Washington, says mobile 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. So there's a subversive aspect to these things, of both governments and of customs," says Molella.

In India, courtship customs are changing for some young people because cell phones and text messaging allow them to circumvent parental supervision. Indian sociologist Radhika Chopra says this freedom is having an impact on how young people think about class and caste restrictions.

"The behavior of teenagers and young adults in the public space was much more visible and regulated, you might say. You couldn't express unwanted [i.e., unsanctioned] love, let us say, in a public space. And you still can't, actually," says Chopra. "But the Internet and the mobile phone have created a kind of subset of society of youngsters in the same age group, of the same kinds of backgrounds or even across class and caste backgrounds and so on. And I think this has actually enabled them to be much more independent in their thinking about, lets say, things like what kinds of marriage they would look for."

Future Change

When repressive governments crack down on dissent -- such as in Burma last year and Tibet more recently -- the world learns about it almost instantly via cell phone pictures and the Internet. This has helped mobilize international pressure against such acts of repression, perhaps preventing even worse bloodshed than might have occurred in the past, when information was slower to get out.

Yet experts say the spread of technology in the developing world will not necessarily bring Western-style progress or prosperity.

According to Arthur Molella of the Smithsonian Institution's Lemelson Center, "They're changing these cultures the way they're changing the West. That's very clear. But I think the expectation before is that these technologies would automatically bring the same kind of values that we have in the West to these countries -- the values of speed, the values of material gain and so on that are very much characteristic of, say, the United States. But they can be used, I think, in very different ways that are sensitive to local customs, local needs. They don't always have to serve the purposes of progress, let's say, in the American sense."

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

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.