it and the World’s
How can information technology be best applied to address problems
and provide opportunities for inhabitants of the world’s poorest countries?
While celebratinG the
emerging markets of
Asia, India, and Latin
America, let’s spare a
thought for the world’s
“bottom billion.” These are the inhabitants of the Fourth World that sits beneath the Third World; dozens of countries that, in the words of economist
Paul Collier “are falling behind, and
often falling apart.”
As informatics professionals, why
should we care about these countries? And
how might IT best be used to help them?
The bottom billion—a population
equivalent to that of the U.S. and Europe combined—lives overwhelmingly
in sub-Saharan Africa or Central Asia.
Life expectancy in these regions is just
50 years. One-in-seven children die before the age of five. They missed the globalization boat that sailed with many
other developing countries in the 1980s
and 1990s. While those other countries
have grown steadily richer, the Fourth
World of the bottom billion was actually poorer in 2000 than it was in 1970.2
These countries are not emerging markets, they are fading markets: the whole
of sub-Saharan Africa has an economy
the size of Belgium’s.
Should we be concerned?
Simple ethics says we should: developing an e-business solution to squeeze
out a few extra ounces of profit or timesaving for the world’s privileged population living in the global North pales
in ethical importance compared to
applying new technology to the mega-problems of the bottom billion. And
these countries are
not emerging markets,
they are fading
markets: the whole of
has an economy the
size of Belgium’s.
self-interest says we should: the bottom billion—countries like Somalia,
Afghanistan, and North Korea—are key
sources of global instability and risk including drugs, piracy, and terror.
Not surprisingly, the bottom-billion
nations have been among the least digital. But that is changing. Official figures
may indicate an average of only three
Internet users per hundred population6 but that greatly underestimates
the true reach. Information technology
in the Fourth World is a communal, not
individual, resource. As a result, many
times more are casual users; and many
times more again have indirect access
to Internet-based data and applications
through friends and relations. Internet
connectivity is also growing fast: by 42%
per annum in the bottom billion, compared to 18% in Europe.
Beyond the Internet, there is an even
greater bottom-billion phenomenon:
the cellphone. Ten years ago, Manhattan had more phone connections
than all of Africa. Today, thanks to the
cellphone, Africa has more phone connections than the U.S. and Canada
combined. Approximately one-fifth of
22 communicAtionS of the Acm | APriL 2009 | voL. 52 | no. 4