Rivers 2.0

August 2, 2006

As many economic historians have observed, the rise of the British Empire depended largely on the abundance of rivers connecting inland manufacturing zones in England to markets around the world. Jeffrey Sachs and others have observed the inverse today, namely that many of the world’s poorest countries are landlocked, dramatically reducing their ability to generate wealth through participation in the global economy. Countries such as Bolivia, Peru, and much of sub-Suharan Africa have struggled to emerge from extreme poverty in part as a result of this phenomenon.

The Internet functions like a river, connecting people to the global economy. High-speed Internet connections allow services to flow in and out of a country, navigable waterways or no. That’s not to say that geographic problems disappear, but the networked information economy can level the playing field, particularly for many of the world’s most impoverished regions where engaging in global trade is otherwise nearly impossible simply because there is little or no way to get to the ocean.

Outsourcing to India has been the most salient example of this phenomenon, resulting in a dramatic, although asymmetric, rise in GNP. The same trend has yet to emerge in many of the world’s most impoverished countries, however, largely because they often lack the initial resources required for the infrastructure investments for high-speed connections.

In this light, the growing number of low-cost connectivity projects become all the more vital, such as Berkeley’s TIER project, the Akshaya Network, and Green WiFi. Akshaya is one of the most interesting in that it’s using low-cost, primarily wireless technologies to connect India’s poorest regions, attempting to bring them along as India emerges out of poverty. These projects combined with the continued efforts of the United Nation’s Millennium Project hold tremendous promise for overcoming these geographic barriers.

None of this is meant to prioritize connectivity in developing regions over providing for basic human needs such as health care, food, housing, and education. Connectivity does provide many unseen benefits, however, such as providing access to health care resources, techniques to improve crop yields, etc. It also can allow communities to directly engage in Internet-based trade, such as weavers or coffee cooperatives in Guatemala establishing web storefronts to sell their goods directly. Connectivity, English language proficiency, access to computers, and technological literacy remain the primary barriers to entry, but the potential is there to pull millions of people out of extreme poverty. Let’s get on it!