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World: Developing Nations Not Prepared For Computer Bug

Washington, 27 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The World Bank says that with less than 12 months before the start of the new millennium, many developing countries are completely unprepared for the serious risks posed by the Year 2000 computer problem.

Joyce Amenta, the World Bank's Year 2000 coordinator, is urging all developing nations, especially those without specific Year 2000 strategies, to immediately start to protect critical systems such as power generation and transmission, financial sectors, communications, transportation, and fuel and food distribution.

The computer problem, also known as the "millennium bug," came from programmers, trying to save space, using two digits to represent the year instead of four. Thus, the year 2000 would be written as 00, and date-dependent systems may mistake this as 1900 when making calculations using the date. This could cause some computer systems to malfunction, issue errors or shut down altogether.

Amenta said that international opinion has been too long preoccupied with Year 2000 problems in industrial countries, while ignoring developing countries which are also at great risk. She told a press conference in Washington Tuesday that the majority of developing countries, even the poorest, have computerized their essential services such as banking, telecommunications, power and government services.

She said: "However, too few developing countries have taken the actions needed to immunize their computer systems. The World Bank shares the concern....that any potential Year 2000 economic and social instability will ripple throughout the global economy and endanger the economic progress being made in the developing world."

Amenta said that a survey of 139 developing countries shows that only 15 percent are currently taking concrete steps to fix the problem. Twenty-four percent are aware of the problem, but are not taking action. She said World Bank President James Wolfensohn is so concerned by the potential impact on the global economy that he is writing personally to the leaders of all developing nations, urging them to protect critical systems and undertake contingency planning.

Amenta acknowledged that finding the money to fix the computer bug is a major obstacle for developing nations:

Amenta said: "The daily survival faced by developing countries and economies in transition have distracted governments from fixing the Year 200 problem: floods in Central America, financial crisis in East Asia and Russia, civil wars in central Africa, and limited resources plowed into immediate needs. To them the problem is seen as a vague and distant threat."

George West, manager for the bank's Information Solutions Group, said the Bank has received grant requests from 62 developing nations (for a total of $9.6 million) to help fix the computer problem. Of those, 45 (for $6.9 million) have already been approved. Among the countries receiving grants are Armenia, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Romania, Russia and Tajikistan.

West said that global cooperation between all nations, developed and developing is "essential." He said that today, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, the World Bank -- along with the U.S. -- will call for increased international cooperation and seek funds to support a Year 2000 International Cooperation Center.

West said it is impossible to overemphasize the magnitude of the problem, adding that preserving the stability of the global economy depends on immediate coordination and cooperation of all the world's nations.

West concluded: "If ever there was a time for collaboration, partnership and sharing of information and knowledge -- this is it."