by Jon Lewis
Access to information is becoming increasingly synonymous with the world’s definition of success and power.
Access to information is becoming increasingly synonymous with the world’s definition of success and power. Decision making in our fast-paced, technological societies demands information. Those without access to information fall behind and cannot compete. This new dependence on information has divided people into two categories: the haves and the have-nots of information.
The speed of change and innovation only widens this gap. Those who ride the crest of the wave and try to stay abreast of the latest developments in information technology invariably are pulled far ahead of those who don’t even recognize that a race exists. This is particularly true between the West and developing nations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Although similar situations existed in the past with the introduction of other sorts of technology (electrical power, transportation, etc.), the information and communication revolution could create the greatest gulf of all.
Information technology can equally increase or decrease this information gap. As men and women striving for global Christian community, we must work hard to define how information technology can do the latter.
If this technology is exported to the developing nations in an unthinking, colonial-style manner, I have no doubt that the gap will only widen. However, the technology’s very capability to improve communication and provide better connections to remote places can significantly help to shrink the gap.
We face some important but tough questions anytime a new technology is offered to the developing nations:
• Cost. Can they afford it?
• Support. Can they maintain and sustain it?
• Usefulness. Do they need it?
• Control. Who should decide?
Westerners have often been charged with fostering a type of imperialism on the developing world when we try to impose our modern, technical solutions on its problems. That would, indeed, be a likely impression if we were to answer the above questions like this: “Why, of course you need information technology. It’s the wave of the future. You are just going to have to afford and support it!”
Of course, the same imperialism charge could be made if we attempt to answer the questions this way: “Of course you don’t need it. You can’t possibly afford or support it.”
Regardless, our fellow Christians in the non-Western world might ask, “What gives you in the West the right to make such decisions?”
There are no easy answers. However, we all must recognize a couple of key points.
1. Whether we like it or not, information technology is rapidly coming to the developing world. Wherever there is a profit to be made, commercial ventures will proliferate, and there are plenty of new profit-making opportunities offered by information technology. From cellular telephones to video games, from the ghettos of megacities to the remote corners of the rain forest, we can be sure local entrepreneurs will always find a ready market for the new technology just as they have done with the transistor radio and television. As this happens, we will see many developing countries leapfrogging older communication technologies and moving directly to state-of-the-art systems and equipment. In a recent meeting with the director of the Pakistan Wireless Board, I was impressed to learn that his country has already made an alliance with the INMARSAT company for implementation of the future “Standard P” hand-held satellite telephone system. “This,” he said, “will be a better solution for reaching all of Pakistan with telephone service than even installing fiber optics land lines.”
2. Just because information technology is coming to the developing nations doesn’t mean that everyone will use it or need it. Even as church and mission leaders in the West are still learning how to get connected, already their counterparts in the developing world are rushing for similar capability. For example, 80 percent of the AD2000 & Beyond Movement leaders around the world already have e-mail access. However, not everyone inthese developing countries will have this same felt need. Along with economic barriers, there are also cultural issues. The important thing to remember is that the developing world should not be viewed as a homogeneous group. Just as in the West, some will need it, and use it, and some will not. Therefore, we must think strategically about how information technology should be applied in the developing world.
ESSENTIALS FOR CLOSING THE GAP
Three things are essential to close the gap. Like the legs of a three-legged stool, all are crucial. A stool will not stand on just two legs, and neither will the gap be decreased if one of these essentials is missing.
1.What are the right connections? Those that are affordable and supportable. For 50 years, my organization has been serving missions and churches with aviation transport. In most places we are still using vintage Cessna 185 and 206 aircraft. Even though other, more advanced aircraft have been developed over the years, the Cessnas are still the planes of choice for mission service. Why? Because they work. They are appropriate for the environments in which we operate.
This is true of information technology as well. There will always be a faster and better system available somewhere, but in general, it is not necessary to always have the latest and greatest. This does not necessarily mean passing off our old 286 or 386 obsolete computers onto our brothers in developing countries, although there may be times when even this is an appropriate solution. More likely, we should strive to identify appropriate hardware/software and package it into low-cost systems that will be easy to learn, affordable, and supportable.
A similar thing could be said for on-line services. Someday the World Wide Web with all of its graphical wonder may be accessible to everyone. But in many places, just having reliable communication via text transfer is still a dream. During the past year and a half, MAF’s e-mail service for world missions, MAFnet, appears to be a good example of this. Far from being a cutting-edge communication system, its exponential growth has nevertheless proved that it has been an appropriate or right solution for communication to the parts of the world where the Internet and CompuServe do not yet reach.
2. What is the right content for the developing world? Information that is useful. It may be exciting for some of us to browse through the card catalog of the Library of Congress, or go window shopping in the CompuServe On-Line Mall, but how valuable is that sort of information to someone in the rain forest of Africa? In our rush to help our non-Western friends use information technology, we must remember that what is useful or interesting to us may be of little interest in the developing world.
What will be useful to our colleagues? It’s easy to think of key words that might describe that usefulness: Content that is contextual, that helps educate, that fosters community, that uses local languages. But what does all that mean when applied to a specific situation? The only way to find out is to involve our non-Western colleagues.
The trouble is, many developing world leaders don’t even know what information technology is, let alone what useful content should flow across its connections. Our first priority, then, is to expose and educate them about what this new technology is and what it can mean in their context. The process must be one of dialogue, of give and take, of listening and talking. The process will no doubt be a long one, probably frustrating those of us wanting to see quick results. But, in the long run, this will not only give us the feedback necessary to repackage our Western content so that it is most useful to them, but it will also encourage the creation of locally generated information that, no doubt, will be the most useful of all.
3. What are the right methods for making information technology useful? Those that maintain a commitment to “high touch” relationship.
This leg of the stool is perhaps the most important in closing the gap. Whether by design or by trial and error, the other two legs will probably happen one way or another. But in our rush to connect computers and modems to the developing world, bringing quality “high touch” relationships can be easily overlooked.
I heard a story of two African church leaders who each had recently been given access to an e-mail connection. However, before the one felt free to begin communicating with the other, he had to get on his bicycle and ride 40 kilometers in order to properly meet the other personally. Once that happened, they could begin using e-mail between themselves. This illustrates the priority of relationship over simply communicating.
The key to MAF’s providing aviation technology has also been the same. Invariably, when national leaders are asked what they appreciate most about MAF, the aircraft do not come first to mind. They mention first the pilots, mechanics, and their families along with their contribution to the overall ministry of the church. Although we may have prided ourselves in being a provider of a strategic technology for world mission, in reality, it is the nontechnical, “high touch” aspect of providing that technology that has made it successful.
This poses a significant challenge. We cannot just provide “quick and dirty” technical solutions and think that we have really helped anyone. Any technical assistance must be accompanied with an equal (if not greater) measure of commitment to relationship. “High touch” relationships will cause us to hear with our hearts and not just our heads. “High touch” relationships will also prove that we are not just interested in promoting our technology, but do, in fact, want to use it as a tool for what really matters—to link people in a loving, global community. From this deep, caring perspective we will win the right to offer information technology to our colleagues in the developing world. This, more than anything else, will assure that the gap can be closed.
HELPING THE RIGHT PEOPLE GET CONNECTED
If not everyone in the developing world will use or need information technology, who will? The answer can be illustrated with the following diagram. The first pyramid has to do with who will use information technology in the developing world, and the second deals with the relative usefulness it will bring them.
Leaders will be the first to need it and want it, followed by Bible schools and other training institutions. However, the general population, many of whom have yet to even use a telephone for the first time, will no doubt have little use for it at all. The point is that we can not categorize everyone as one homogeneous unit.
This diagram also helps in dealing with the question of control. Obviously, the leaders and institutions in non-Western countries should have a voice. The issue becomes more complicated, however, when so much of the technology is wrapped up in subtle Western garb. The very way we process, manipulate, and use data and information is very Western. For example, it may make total sense for us to locate people group databases on World Wide Web sites, but how accessible will they be for countries that cannot handle anything more than 2,400 baud rates? Would we be unconsciously sending a message that in order to be really part of the global Christian community, you must have full Internet access? Is it any wonder one church leader was quoted as fearing the return of “Western imperialism” with the coming of information technology applications to Africa?
Our challenge is how to empower people and institutions with information technology so that they can help shape its future application in the global Christian community. (See examples below).
We must work hard to ensure that information technology remains our ally and not our enemy in linking us ever more strongly as a global Christian community.
Practical Applications of Information Technology
As director of research for MAF, and previously as the Africa regional manager, I have traveled extensively indeveloping countries. Here are some of the possible applications of information technology that I have observed.
1. Basic e-mail. Simple capability to make one-to-one communication links with others. Several different levels and types of communication with corresponding hardware are needed:
· Full World Wide Web Internet connection with graphic capability (state-of-the art desktop computer systems.) Example: Brazil’s SEPAL office handling mission research for the country.
· Basic text message transfer (laptops, older desktop computers, etc.) Example: Nzash Lumeha’s School of Missionary Training in Kinshasa, Zaire.
· Simple, brief message communication link (palmtop-type units with built-in modems) Example: Nagaland Baptist Church’s 300 national missionaries in various parts of Asia.
· Wireless capability for those in places where phone lines are either unreliable or nonexistent. Example: Bunia Seminary in northeast Zaire.
2. Electronic networks. Creating the ability to link multiple key leaders together at a national, regional, or international levels. Example: Regional coordinators for the AD2000 Movement in Brazil.
3. Strategic information depots for mission leaders. Giving national church and mission leaders access to key information (when possible, in their own language), enabling them to make informed decisions on mission strategy. Example: Lidia Almeida de Menezes, director of Betel, Brazil, needing to make more informed decisions on where to deploy the students from her school on mission projects.
4. Hospitals and clinics. Ability to connect onto a medical network to order supplies and obtain immediate advice on treatment for special cases. Example: Rural clinics of Mali, Zambia, and Mozambique.
5. Community “telegraph service.” Giving the members of remote villages a connection to transfer important messages to family members, etc. This could be a significant community service by the local church that would win favor with all. Example: The village of Nebobongo, Zaire.
6. Distance learning. Providing courses on-line expanding the ministry radius of existing Bible schools and seminaries, and offering training never before available. Example: BEST Seminary in Bangui, Central African Republic, able to offer courses throughout the country.
7. On-line educational resources. Giving resource-poor institutions or students access to electronic libraries and other databases of educational material. Example: AETAL (Association of Bible Institutes in Brazil) aims to create a bulletin board system for its 400 member institutes in Brazil.
8. Desktop learning. Offering training courses via interactive multimedia CD-ROM, especially where on-line connection is not possible. Developments are under way for a $300 interactive CD-ROM unit that does not need a computer, but instead attaches directly to any TV. This could have tremendous potential throughout the developing world.
9. Desktop publishing and small quantity printing. Ability to e-mail a document file to a printing center that could produce and print locally small quantity publications (300-1,000). Example: Wati Aier’s Bible institute in Nagaland, India.
10. Contact with evangelicals in remote areas. Ability to keep in basic contact with national evangelists traveling in remote or dangerous areas. A device similar to a two-way pager would be best for this and easiest to afford by national churches. Example: Rev. Sushant Naik and his fellow evangelists working among the tribal groups of the Orissa province of India and under constant threat by radical Hindu groups.
11. Wireless communications. Providing data links in places where phone lines are too costly, too unreliable, or do not exist at all. Example: Long-range communication currently being made across the length of Zaire using HF radio data links to five main mission centers. Example: Tirana, Albania, where a network of VHF data links is taking place to counteract the two- to three-year wait for a new phone line.
Jon Lewis is director of research, Mission Aviation Fellowship, Redlands, Calif. He was raised in a missionary family in Portugal. He holds degress in physics from Bethel College and the University of Minnesota. He has served with MAF for 18 years as a pilot, program manager and Africa regional manager.
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