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Monday, July 23, 2001

World Bank to launch Development Gateway
Tanya Birkbeck

WHEN it comes to the Internet and its role in promoting development, it seems that everyone is sure of the goal, but few agree on how to reach it.

The World Bank, the United Nations and various non-governmental organisations (NGOs) all say they want to transform the lives of the poor. And from the point of view of those working in computer and Internet-saturated developed nations, technology appears to be obvious answer.

On July 30, the World Bank will be launching its ambitious project, the Development Gateway (www.developmentgateway.org). The Gateway bills itself as a place where "worlds of knowledge meet" — an Internet portal designed to bring together "communities, organisations and individuals" in order to reduce poverty.

The launch will come on the heels of the latest UN Human Development Report (HDR), the annual publication documenting progress made by nations in improving their peoples’ quality of life.

The HDR for 2001 argues that "information and communications technology... can actually make major contributions to reducing world poverty."

That is also the premise that the Gateway is working upon. But it is no simple issue. The HDR notes that most of the potential benefits of technology actually bypass the poor, because of a lack of market demand and inadequate public funding.

"Technology creators in the private sector respond to the needs of high-income consumers, rather than the needs of those who have little purchasing power."

With less than one-half of 1 per cent of sub-Saharan Africans and South Asians using the Internet, it’s easy to see why critics doubt that a project such as the Development Gateway will succeed in bridging the digital and other divides between the wealthy nations of the North and the poor of the South.

"Disembodied, globally stored information is not a development tool" argues Alex Wilks of the Bretton Woods Project, a Britain-based campaigning group that monitors the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Wilks, who has been following the evolution of the Development Gateway since the inception of the idea, has many reservations about the nature of the project. "A lot of people will feel alienated by the way the site is set up," he says.

Wilks is concerned that the structure of the Gateway website is too hierarchical and that it will act as a filter rather than a disseminator of ideas. He compares the Gateway to an "Imperial-gated community."

"It’s not your right to be there, it’s only if you are granted access by the gatekeeper," he says.

Now in the hands of the World Bank, the Gateway will soon be passed over to what will be known as the Gateway Foundation. While the Foundation will technically be independent of the World Bank, seats on the board of directors can be bought — at a high price. Those wanting to be in on decision-making will be required to make a $5 million contribution.

Major corporations like Microsoft, IBM and America Online (AOL) have already had a hand in the project.

In the interest of avoiding a top-down structure, the Gateway will have locally-run ‘country gateways’, but, says Wilks, "some unpopular choices has been made" over who will be running the gateway in each country. And with some successful country-sites already up and running, such as Uruguay’s www. uruguaytotal.com, Wilks argues that it may be counter-productive to put up more.

"In the end, it will just give more prominence to those who are already having no trouble making their voices heard" — thus widening the existing digital divide.

Already, some organisations in development countries are saying they will stay out of the Development Gateway. One such, the South Africa-based Association for Progressive Communications (an Internet site that focuses on the "environment, human rights development and peace") has opted for what it calls "constructive disengagement" with the Gateway.

"We have talked with (the World Bank) about the initiative, and will continue to do so. We value any shared learning with development information initiatives," Anriettee Esterhuysen, APC’s executive director, told Gemini News Service. "However, we feel that the Development Gateway, to put it simply, is trying to be too much, for too many, at too great a cost."

Esterhuysen, like Wilks, worries that the Gateway may unintentionally end up competing with local initiatives.

"The Internet is a very public space," adds Wilks. "For the World Bank it is a nightmare. Any small organisation can set up and publish. The World Bank has for a long time been very dominant, and now it’s threatened by the pluralism."

Dr David Gauntlett, a lecturer in social communications at the University of Leeds in Britain, notes that it is the nature of the Internet to be pluralistic. "The World Bank may well want everyone interested in development issues to use their gateway. But the good thing about the Internet is that userscan always look for, and usually find, alternatives," he says.

"The Web contains many voices and, whether the World Bank likes it or not, people will access those more challenging sites."

Gauntlett feels that whenever an institution with particular political or ideological leanings sets up a supposedly authoritative Web site, it should be clearly stated. In Development Gateway’s prototype edition, only a tiny World Bank logo can be found at the bottom of the main page.

Development Gateway’s head of communication, Connie Eysenck, says the whole debate over the Bank project has been blown out of proportion. She says this month’s launch is part of an on-going phasing-in process. But when asked how the Development Gateway will maintain editorial independence when large corporations can buy a seat on the Gateway Foundation, Eysenck admits she does not have an answer.

"It hasn’t been put in place yet," she says. "You have to see this very much as something that is being developed."

— Gemini News