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World: Info Explosion Proves To Be A Potential Boon

Washington, 5 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The explosion of knowledge and information now under way in the world holds the potential for lifting millions out of poverty, says the World Bank. It could also create a widening knowledge gap in which poor people and the poorer nations fall further and further behind.

Bank President James Wolfensohn says that new communications technology and plummeting computing costs are shrinking distance and eroding borders and time so that even the most remote areas of the earth tap into the rapidly expanding global store of knowledge.

But he adds in a forward to the bank's annual World Development Report, there is an increasing danger that the poorest countries and communities will be bypassed, leaving them falling behind even more rapidly than any time before.

World Bank senior vice president and chief economist, Joseph Stiglitz, says that lack of knowledge has been shown to be a significant detriment to economic development and the standard of living of people.

Forty years ago, he told a press conference in Washington, Ghana and South Korea had the same per capita income. By the early 1990s, Korea's per capita income was six times higher than Ghana's and experts say that at least half the disparity can be explained by South Korea's greater success in acquiring and using knowledge.

Knowledge is one area where government policies can make a difference, says Stiglitz, pointing to Costa Rica in Central America where life expectancy and infant mortality are the same as major industrial nations even though Costa Rican incomes are only about one-tenth those in the U.S.

It's not just formal education either, says Stiglitz. the green revolution which brought tremendous increases in world agricultural production was spread primarily by agricultural extension services and the sale of new seeds and fertilizers.

While good 12 to 20 year education systems help, he says, they are often too expensive for the poorest countries. But even when education is limited to three or four years of primary schooling, says Stiglitz, what is important is to instill the capacity to learn -- to enhance the capacity to learn throughout peoples' lives.

Technology is advancing rapidly, which contains tremendous potential for cost reductions, but this doesn't always go to individuals, says the bank report. Often very large state monopolies -- or even private claims to intellectual property rights -- keep knowledge from those who can't pay for it.

Carl Dahlman, who led the team that prepared the report, said there is a real danger that developing countries may be left behind. So the World Bank is attempting to become the center for sharing the world's knowledge globally.

Dahlman said that just the other day, for example, a highway authority in Pakistan asked for urgent help in dealing with a major problem of pavement failure it was experiencing.

In the past, the bank might have sent a team to study the question and issue a report months later, far too late to do any good. Not any more, he says. This time bank officials were able to put out an electronic query and within hours had vital information from highway pavers in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and South Africa that allowed the Pakistanis to proceed the very next day.

It's a new way of doing business, says Dahlman, and the bank is moving ahead to become a unique link to the world's best development expertise whether inside or outside the bank.