PRAGUE, April 1, 2006 (RFE/RL) – In China, some pay huge sums for a lucky mobile-phone number, and some ask priests to bless their phones. In Africa, one man was even buried in a coffin shaped like a mobile phone. In just a matter of years, the mobile phone and computers have become truly personal for many people. And, just possibly, computers may one day become so cheap that almost everyone, even the poorest, might have access to one. That, at least, is the hope of a U.S. research team currently trying to develop a $100 laptop.
The computer and the mobile phone may already have revolutionized many lives. They could change many more. But are countries really making the most of these new technologies? And are they ready to make the most of the opportunities that IT advances will create?
It was those concerns that prompted the World Economic Forum to introduce the Networked Readiness Index five years ago. Last week, it produced its latest findings.
The Usual Suspects
Which country, then, is most wired and best able to do business in a digital age?
This year, the laurels went to the United States. In previous years, they have gone to Singapore and Finland.
None of these names probably come as a surprise. The other leading names would also be familiar to anyone who has seen some of the many other international indexes on issues like economic development, education, the business environment, and corruption.
The famously uncorrupt and equality-loving Nordic countries; small, far-sighted, and technically minded Asian states, like Singapore and Taiwan; countries like Korea that invest heavily in education; and the relatively business-friendly Anglo-Saxon economies, such as Britain and Australia: these were all countries close to the top of the table.
It is perhaps not by chance that these various surveys produce similar names, because the chief sponsors of the report -- the World Economic Forum and a well-known business school, INSEAD -- considered not just how wired a country is but also how bureaucratic it is, how well-managed its economy is, and how much it actually uses new technology. The rationale is simple: It is not enough for a country to have infrastructure for phones and computers. A country needs to have people and businesses able and willing to use technology. And the state needs to encourage and enable people to use IT at work.
The criteria of the index therefore include educational and business measures along with more obvious yardsticks, such as access to computers and phones, and government IT policies.
The Poor-To-Middling Performance Of RFE/RL's Broadcast Region
All but one of the 15 countries in RFE/RL's region listed rank in the lower half of the table. The exception -- Croatia -- comes in at 57. Albania has the lowest ranking, 106th. Some countries not listed -- like Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Afghanistan -- might have come even lower.
One result of the wide range of criteria are some perhaps unexpected pairings. Kazakhstan (60) comes just behind Croatia (57). And, close to the bottom, Bosnia (97) ranks lower not just than Moldova (94) and Georgia (96) but also Tajikistan (93), sometimes considered the poorest state in Central Asia.
The wide variety of criteria affects Russia's standing. Russia may be well-known for its rich pool of computer experts, but relatively few Russians have access to the internet. And though its economy may now be flush with oil money, Russia's government invests relatively little into education and Russians invest relatively little into small businesses.
Investment into small ventures is among the criteria in the index because the importance of investment as a catalyst of innovation -- and innovation is, the report's authors stress, critical to the success of a country's economy in today's rapidly changing business environment. One of the reasons why the United States scores so high for innovation is the access entrepreneurs have to venture capital, money typically invested into small, young, adventurous, and risky businesses.
One of the ultimate tests of how effectively a country uses IT is productivity. And here the report offers an insight into the productivity gap between the United States and Europe. It finds that large European companies are less productive than U.S. multinationals based in Europe -- in other words, U.S. companies subject to the same market conditions. The reason, the authors suggest, is better management.
The United States emerges from the report as a nimble giant. What about China and India, the two giants of Asia? India stayed roughly in the same position (40th); China fell nine places, to 50th. Both, though, were well ahead of any country RFE/RL broadcasts to. No country in the region is an economic giant. Nor, it seems, are any of them nimble.
WTO Status Of RFE/RL Broadcast Countries
An exhibition of the history of the WTO in Singapore in 1996 (courtesy photo)
Armenia: Joined on 5 February 2003.
Croatia: Joined on 30 November 2000.
Georgia: Joined on 14 June 2000.
Kyrgyzstan: Joined on 20 December 1998.
Macedonia: Joined on 4 April 2003.
Moldova: Joined on 26 July 2001.
Romania: Joined on 1 January 1995.
Countries That Are Not Yet WTO Members:
Afghanistan: Submitted its application in November 2004.
Azerbaijan: Submitted its application in June 1997.
Bosnia-Herezgovina: Submitted its application in May 1999.
Belarus: Submitted its application in September 1993.
Iran: Submitted its application in July 1996.
Iraq: Submitted its application in September 2004.
Kazakhstan: Submitted its application in January 1996.
Russia: Submitted its application in June 1993.
Serbia and Montenegro: Submitted separate applications in December 2004.
Tajikistan: Submitted its application in May 2001.
Ukraine: Submitted its application in November 1993.
Uzbekistan: Submitted its application in December 1994.
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For an exclusive RFE/RL interview with former WTO head MICHAEL MOORE,click here.