Internet promises salvation – or an even bigger knowledge gap.

Internet promises salvation – or an even bigger knowledge gap.

The internet, the world’s fastest growing communications tool, is still largely a western phenomenon – so being connected to the web is becoming a new demarcation line between the rich and the poor.

In the US, President Bill Clinton has pledged that every American classroom will be hooked up to the internet by the end of this year; there are already more computers in America than all the rest of the world put together. Tony Blair has similar aspirations for Britain.

Meanwhile, south Asia, which is to home to 23% of the world’s people, has less than 1% of the world’s internet users. And in Africa, there are seven internet hosts for every 1m people, and 40% of people in developing countries have never made a phone call.

At a conference last year in Florence on the so-called Third Way – the political school of thought that seeks to chart a course between the traditional ideologies of the left and right – Mr Clinton suggested that technology itself could be the key to reducing global inequality. “The people in Africa are no different than the people in America,” he told fellow social democrat leaders. “If you give people access to technology, a lot of smart people will figure out how to make a lot of money.”

Internet promises salvation - or an even bigger knowledge gap.

Mr Clinton agrees with the UN: the technological gap between the developed and developing world can only reinforce global inequality. His solution, therefore, is to get schools in Africa and Asia on to the net, just like those in the west.

There is a powerful distance-learning lobby pressuring Tony Blair to put technology at the heart of Britain’s contribution to solving the third world education crisis. The net’s enthusiasts believe it could solve many under-resourcing problems in third world schools; textbooks could be replaced by web pages and poorly qualified teachers by a long-distance tutor who could look after many more students.

But some development groups see a danger of looking for an easy techno-fix and ignoring the realities on the ground. There is no point putting African classrooms on the net when some of them lack roofs and electricity, according to one Oxfam official. Technological solutions are premature, he believes.

“The first challenge is to provide children with a decent quality, basic education and the scale of this challenge appears to have escaped internet advocates,” he says.

Access to the net requires a telephone line, another utility in short supply in the developing world. In Bangladesh, there are fewer than three telephone lines for every 1,000 people; in Afghanistan, the ratio is less than one in 1,000. And the barriers are not just physical – a net user has to be literate.

“Even if telecommunications systems are installed and accessible, without literacy and basic computer skills, people will have little access to the network society,” according to the latest UN development report. “In 1995, adult literacy was less than 40% in 16 countries.”

As cost is the single biggest barrier to tackling these problems in the third world, a return to basics is required. Until governments switch resources from military spending and debt servicing, school fees will remain the only way to keep third world schools open.

Most aid officials believe technology can play a part in ending the third world education crisis, “but no number of internet hosts and mobile phones can compensate for mass illiteracy”, says one.