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The information imperative

Beneath the overheated publicity surrounding the Internet and all things digital lies a cold economic fact. Information infrastructure--the fusion of telecommunications networks, computers and information--is quickly becoming a ruthless discriminator in the international struggle for competitiveness.

Traditional types of infrastructure--roads, telephone lines, electricity grids and airports--still form the bedrock of a nation's productive capacity. But among the industrialized nations where that physical infrastructure is already well developed, dominance of information technology increasingly separates the best from the merely competent.

Despite the complexity of the microprocessors that run today's ubiquitous personal computers, the chief benefit of a good information infrastructure is simple: it allows nations to obtain greater returns from their existing investments. Universities that offer students instant access to the latest scientific and technical information produce more capable graduates. Manufacturers become more efficient when they coordinate logistics with specialized software. Hospitals improve service when patient records are stored and distributed via digital networks. Banks and government agencies reduce document processing times when they conduct transactions electronically.

On the surface it may seem that Latin American and Caribbean nations are keeping up with the imperatives of the information age. Brazil hosts what has been called the world's largest annual PC trade show. Computer magazines can be found on urban newstands in every country. Digital editions of dozens of regional newspapers appear on the World Wide Web. And recently privatized telecommunications companies are racing to lay the wires that will allow millions of people to get on-line.

But these developments still benefit only a tiny minority of wealthy Latin Americans. The overwhelming majority of people in the region still lack access to a telephone, let alone a computer. According to a recent report by market researcher International Data Corp./World Times, "No Latin American country is currently in a strong position to capitalize on the Global Information Revolution." The United Nations Development Programme recently concluded that the region's information technology infrastructure is "woefully inadequate."

These stark assessments are prompting governments, educators and development experts to examine what exactly should be done to improve Latin America's information infrastructure. By some estimates the region would need to invest at least $10 billion over the next five years in order to meet basic information infrastructure needs. But since public spending is already largely committed to filling the large gaps in the region's physical infrastructure, most investment in information technology will have to come from the private sector.

In February of this year the IDB launched Informatics 2000, an initiative to assist the region in planning and coordinating these investments. Working with governments, companies and civic groups, the IDB will identify emerging issues, highlight risks and opportunities, and organize working groups to study the information needs of particular sectors. Working groups on education, health, investment funding, electronic commerce, the environment, banking and access to information are currently preparing reports that will be presented at a conference at IDB headquarters in September. The IDB will use those reports to craft a lending and technical support strategy for future information infrastructure projects.

Speaking at a recent meeting with the Global Information Infrastructure Commission, an industry group that has agreed to cooperate with the Informatics 2000 initiative, IDB President Enrique V. Iglesias said that "the Information Age... makes it imperative for the region to use information technology as a tool to match global productivity levels." But along with the focus on competitiveness, Iglesias said the region should make sure that this technology is used to improve the efficiency, effectiveness and reach of services to the poor, "so that they have affordable access to the information and services central to an information-based economy."

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