§ 3.8 p.m.
§ Lord Hardinge of Penshurst
rose to call attention to the case for the promotion of information technologies, especially books, journals and electronic media, for the purposes of international development; and to move for Papers.
1651 The noble Lord said: My Lords, I should like, first, to thank all those who are speaking today. I should particularly like to say that if I emerge this afternoon without disaster, I shall owe a particular debt to the support and help of my noble colleague Lord Sandwich.
Secondly, I should declare an interest or two. I am a bookseller, and sit on the Export Group of the Booksellers' Association. I also sit on the British Council's Publishing Advisory Committee. My day job is to run the Library Supply division of John Smith & Son, in Glasgow, and I am a shareholder in the company, which has long been a supplier to ODA and DfID projects, and holds the world-wide contract to supply books and related materials to the libraries of the British Council.
I mention this in the particular context of information and development, because many of the council libraries are a shining example both of what can be achieved, and of the demand for it when it is achieved. The library in Bombay, which I visited last autumn, has a book stock of over 60,000 volumes, but shelves for only 35,000. It functions at all only because at least half the stock is permanently out on loan, but there is no difficulty in achieving that. I was in Addis Ababa a fortnight ago, and the picture in the council library there was extremely similar.
It is, however, fair to say that most specialist information centres in the developing world—whether libraries, resource centres, school book collections or multi-media or Internet access points—offer a depressing contrast. The main problem is that collections tend to be undermined by intermittent and fragmentary funding. In many cases, the same gross amount of money, applied more consistently, would work significantly better.
I phrased the subject of the debate to include both old and new technologies, to embody the delivery of information however it is packaged, and to recognise that different packages—a book, a CD Rom or an Internet connection—may be appropriate in different circumstances and different countries. Studies by the World Bank and other international institutions have shown that investment in literacy gives a higher return in terms of economic and social development than any other interventionist aid, but that is only a small part of the story.
In advanced countries, information technologies play an increasingly dominant role in underpinning projects of every type. This input has proved to be very cost-effective. The same has been found to apply in developing countries, when development projects have been supported by a strong information element. But there is a real risk of developing countries being left behind in the emerging information age where, increasingly, economic prosperity is based on access to knowledge. We are witnessing a widening north-south information gap, in both traditional and new media, with the result that the poorer developing countries may well be condemned to isolation and continuing poverty.
Information underpins large sections of the development process. Two key objectives were set out in the White Paper, Eliminating World Poverty, 1652 published last autumn. Important but quite ambitious targets were defined for both basic education and healthcare; and it is hard to see how these can be met without proper local training for the relevant professionals. In other words, effective vocational training sits at the heart of the delivery of these objectives. In education, this means access to textbooks and up-to-date learning resources. In medicine, if doctors and nurses become increasingly out of touch with new developments, the gap in health between the advanced and the developing world will inevitably continue to grow.
This crisis is a matter of concern to many governments and international agencies, particularly the World Bank, which has recently launched a major global initiative to invest in improving the participation of developing countries in the world information economy.
I am concerned that in the above mentioned White Paper, DfID hardly acknowledges this major issue. This is the more surprising given the undoubtedly leading position occupied by the British knowledge and information industries; not simply commercial publishers and distributors, but a wide range of charities and NGOs, many of them producing low-cost materials of great potential value. This seems to me to be an area where this country is particularly qualified to make a real and positive contribution to the development process. In this context, it would be helpful to know what role the Government see Britain playing in the process deriving from the Global Knowledge 97 conference in Toronto.
Historically, Britain had two structured programmes in this field; the Book Presentation Programme (BPP) and the Educational Low-Price Book Scheme (ELBS). Both have been abolished in recent years. I think other speakers may have something to say about ELBS; I am going to concentrate more on the functions previously performed by the BPP. In essence, this programme consisted of a substantial envelope which supported local information resources with modest bundles of money.
I am not critical of the abolition of the programme. It seemed like a good idea at the time. The idea was that information should be dealt with on a country-by-country basis, and built into local projects as appropriate. That seemed logical and consistent, and it is only with hindsight that I think that it was largely mistaken.
It turned out that the BPP refreshed parts of the information infrastructure that country programmes found it hard to reach. In particular, it helped to maintain the currency and quality of materials across a very wide range of institutions. Information collections degrade constantly. We have become worse at preventing this than we used to be. The reason is that aid in general—not specifically from DfID—has become more short term, more fashion conscious, more likely to be composed of large sums of money rather than small amounts. These can upgrade an information collection very effectively, but they cannot maintain it afterwards. 1653 As with diet, so with information; alternating surfeit and famine turns out to be much less good for one than the right amount every day.
I would not want to return to the BPP as it was. Life moves on, and we live in a very different world. But perhaps we should re-examine its strengths in the light of current needs and current technologies, broadening where appropriate, focusing where needed. Most access to information in poorer countries will inevitably be through collective facilities. Only a tiny élite will have individual access to sophisticated information tools in either the short or medium term. Therefore, it is vital to prevent the degradation of collective provision, and of libraries in particular.
I would therefore try to create a structure to look specifically at information management. It would be contracted to a project manager, and would need to control at least some of the funding going to information-based aid. It would have a specific brief to help to maintain the information resources necessary to meet the key priorities set out in the White Paper, particularly in basic education and health. To my mind, the advantages of this approach are as follows. First, money could be allocated in quite small packets without creating loads of small projects, and it would be easier to maintain modest levels of support in countries which happen not to be fashionable. Secondly, licensing is becoming a critical area in all the information technologies, and there will be significant cost advantages in avoiding fragmentation. Thirdly, innovation will be easier if considered as a function of the whole potential market.
Perhaps I may give two examples. First, on-demand publishing has grown into a significant business in the United States in recent years, and pilots have been run in other advanced countries, including Britain. In essence, the user—typically a student—receives a bound book comprising extracts from other publications, tailored to the particular requirements usually of a course. Only the bits needed are paid for and supplied. The final technology is old—a book—but the underlying transactions, dealing with printing and distribution rights, are mostly electronic.
It seems to me that this framework is eminently applicable to international development, and that it could utilise work already being done for domestic use. But I cannot see how it could possibly be developed except as part of a structured programme across a number of target countries.
Secondly, DfID has as a priority the encouragement of local publishing, particularly in Africa. I support this, though I am inclined to think that local distribution is actually more critical than local publishing. But there is no "African Books in Print". In fact, there is no "Indian Books in Print" either, although the English language publishing industry there is quite substantial. The creation of a systematic and effective way of collating and disseminating information about the product, which would have to be international, is in my view the single thing which would do most to develop these industries.
1654 At this point I would like to throw in a modest suggestion. I would have thought that an information management programme of the kind I have described would in many ways be a much better candidate for EU funding than programmes which have actually received such funding. Various problems have arisen to do with big EU projects in the area which are entirely Anglophone, but something like that would work just as well in Francophone or Hispanic libraries.
Finally, I should like to say a little about the ownership of books. They are the cheapest form of information and the most accessible in poor countries. They require no hardware. They are unlikely to be affected by the millennium bug. I have heard the view that, since book ownership is inevitably limited to the relatively well off in poor countries, encouraging it should not be a priority. I do not agree, and when the issue came up in a workshop at the London International Book Fair a couple of years ago the Africans present did not agree either. I think that we should try to do something to give others the choices we take for granted for ourselves and our children. ELBS undoubtedly addressed this issue. It might be useful if the Minister could elaborate a bit more on the Government's very welcome commitment to replace ELBS with something better made in this House on the 9th March. My view is that since a replacement based on producer subsidy is unlikely to find favour, a subsidy will need to be applied at point of purchase, unless the process is to be left to the market. I believe that last course would be very dangerous because the development of advanced world information systems, particularly the Internet, is pushing quite rapidly towards global pricing. It seems to me likely that publishers who are worried by the leakage into their core markets of cheap editions created for poorer countries, may withdraw those editions in future.
My favoured approach is a voucher scheme. Vouchers would be sold to customers and students in key disciplines at a subsidised price; say a £20 voucher for £10. They could be used to purchase information materials locally or by post from any registered supplier. Low-priced editions and Internet traders could naturally be included in the supply. The coupons would be redeemed at face value less a handling charge. The British Council already runs a scheme which administratively is almost identical to this, although without subsidy and for a different purpose. I do not believe that a voucher scheme should stand alone. It should operate alongside other initiatives. There is already a scheme to list and publicise existing low-price editions. There is probably scope for co-operation between DfID and ELST, the new sponsored text scheme that is currently being established. I mentioned on-demand publishing earlier.
To summarise, the relentless growth in importance within advanced societies of the old and new information technologies needs to be mirrored in developing countries. Without this they are likely to miss the opportunities available to them. We need to do more to ensure that the collections of information which already exist do not degrade into uselessness. We should try to help people to own at least the cheapest information materials.
1655 My Lords, I thank you for your patience during this opinionated gallop across the field and I beg to move for Papers.
§ 3.23 p.m.
§ Lord St. John of Bletso
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Hardinge for having introduced this topical and wide-ranging debate. The noble Lord has spoken from his considerable experience and expertise as a book dealer, with both his domestic and international dealings. I admit that until recently I would have regarded myself as the classic technophobe, but, like the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, I have become addicted to "surfing" the Internet. In the process, I have appreciated the huge potential for international development, particularly in education, by promoting this medium to developing countries.
The simple theme of my brief contribution to today's debate is that successful development cannot take place without information. The breathtaking developments in information technologies have provided enormous opportunities for international development; for instance, in trade, education and disaster relief. Like my noble friend Lord Sandwich, I intend to speak today purely on the two issues of the enhancement of education and the potential for dealing with disaster relief through the information technology developed over the past few years.
One of my major interests has been the dissemination of information through the audio-visual medium. Television has continued to develop as a pre-eminent communication. In developing countries, the increase in television ownership and hours spent watching television has been astonishing. Both BBC World Television and the BBC World Service have played a major role in disseminating information to many developing countries. I hope that the Government will continue to support the excellent work of the BBC World Service and consider giving some support to BBC World Television.
As president of the British charity Friends of Television Trust for the Environment, I know that TVE has for many years played a major role in pioneering the convergence of audio-visual communication systems with text in the form of journals; that is to say, we live in a world of video publishing with no borders between the written and spoken word. TVE has focused on highlighting social and environmental concerns to the global audience through the making of numerous programmes. One such programme is the "Hands On" series. Through BBC World Television and other broadcasters, the series has been shown in some 100 million homes around the world. These are five-minute reports which each week highlight successful examples of environmental and developmental entrepreneurship. Television and video are only the beginning. The audio is posted on the world-wide web and pulled down by community radio stations for re-broadcast. Each and every programme goes out with a programme back-up service to provide detailed information on the technology or enterprise featured. This service has been generously supported by the Department for International Development and British Petroleum.
1656 There has been much media coverage about bridging the gap between the information-rich and information-poor countries. Certainly, telecommunications is one of the first sectors targeted by developing countries in their efforts to climb the information ladder. Yet there are enormous differences in access to telecommunications around the world, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa where I spent most of my life.
The World Telecom Development Conference in March this year sought to devise strategies and plans to redress the imbalance. It is a well-known fact that attempts to extend the Internet to the world's poorer countries have been hampered by their antiquated telephone systems. But, thankfully, some broadcasters are now developing technologies to provide fast and reliable Internet access to anyone in Africa, Asia and Latin America under the footprints of several satellites which should be launched by the millennium. There has been much media coverage concerning the bridging of this gap. I believe that at long last we can anticipate some positive results.
The scope for using information technologies, such as geographical information systems through satellite links, should speed up disaster relief. The charity Aid for Aid has been working with British Telecom Laboratories in Britain, experimenting with technology to establish fast data links to download the latest information obtained by satellites from disaster stricken areas. With a major disaster taking place roughly once every six weeks, digitised information could and should provide the key to ensure that there is a swift response.
The Information Society and Development Ministerial Conference, which was held in South Africa in 1996, considered how developing countries could be integrated into the emerging global information society. It highlighted the importance of extending information superhighways to developing countries and establishing a common way forward in promoting the information society. The private sector has played a major role in creating the global information society, but it is important that governments who want their countries to join the information society should not persist in putting barriers in place. The hope is that there will be a continual process of liberalisation in the telecommunications sector around the world.
In conclusion, against the background of Her Majesty's Government's stated commitment to promote the information superhighway and cutting-edge technologies, I hope that more support and emphasis will be given through our aid budget to promoting technical aid in a targeted manner, which I believe will be one of the most practical and cost-efficient options.
§ 3.31 p.m.
My Lords, I am pleased to take part in the debate, and I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hardinge, for introducing it. I come from a different background from the previous two speakers. It is the access to knowledge, rather than the content of books themselves, upon which I can offer the most comment.
1657 The debate splits neatly into three, starting with the promotion of information technologies. We have to look, as always, to the USA, for real promotion. It is only recently that the Secretary of Commerce, William Daley, has told us that he sees IT as responsible for 25 per cent. of real economic growth in the US over the past five years; that it represents 8 per cent. of US GDP; that declining prices in information technology have lowered inflation in the US by one full percentage point; that the US IT industry employs 7.4 million people; that pay in that sector is 60 per cent. above the private sector average; and that the IT sector continues to grow twice as fast as the rest of the economy. That is pretty good promotion.
I turn to the EU. Commissioner Bangemann has always believed that ICT created more jobs than it lost. Many other Commissioners did not agree with him, particularly the Commissioner for Social Affairs. Happily he has changed his mind, because on 16th February this year Commissioner Padraig Flynn told a conference that over 1 million multimedia-related new jobs were expected over the next 10 years; and that the EU software market is now growing at 10 per cent. per annum and producing 50,000 new jobs a year.
I turn specifically to the UK. There were a number of surveys in 1997. In particular, there was one by Motorola. They all basically say that that year only 45 per cent. of UK households had a PC and that only 10 per cent. of households had a modem connecting that PC to the Internet. That was supported by Oftel which, interestingly, went on to state that connections are now doubling every six months. I am not sure from where it got those statistics, but if it is so, we should by now have 20 per cent. of households connected to the Internet, which would be a vast improvement. There are also some McKinsey educational statistics which make interesting reading, but they have not yet reached me.
UK corporates have of course always had large networks. Financial services companies, banks, oil companies and superstores have had sophisticated global networks for some time now. So far as concerns the Internet, that could perhaps be summed up for the corporates in the comment that when the bandwidth doubles the Internet will become interesting.
Books, journals, and electronic media are not exactly my subject. The commercial leader that everyone quotes is Amazon.com, which has yearly increased the number of books advertised over the past several years, yearly increased its revenue from sales enormously, and has yet to make a profit. The good news for Amazon has been that the banks have carried the credit risk. The bad news has been, and still is, that it cannot actually produce just one global list because copyright restrictions cause it to have different lists in each country.
A couple of electronic journal providers talked to the All-Party Internet Group the other day. They explained that 1 million UK registered users read the Electronic Telegraph, and that its owners are working hard to try to provide more personalised content, so that each reader can have access to an increased number of 1658 subjects in which he is interested. That applies also to a journal called Football 365 which has personalised dynamic comment on football with particular emphasis on the team that one happens to follow. Incidentally, 30 per cent. of its readership is abroad.
I turn now to the international development side of this debate. It is well said that there is a direct relationship between a country's wealth and its telecoms network. I once had a large number of statistics on this. I do not have any modern ones, but in 1994 China had nine telephones per 1,000 people; India had seven; Indonesia eight; Bangladesh two; and Vietnam one. Since then, we have read many times how the central government in India, whether the present or the previous one—they have changed several times—have awarded telecoms contracts to this vendor or that only to have the local states cancel those contracts. Of course industry is using satellite, but whether industry's use of satellite will extend access to books in the way I take it the Motion seeks to obtain is less certain.
We then have mobile telephones. Mobiles are, of course, increasing. I am not sure what is the cost of a mobile compared to that of a fixed line, but I suspect that it is higher. I am told that worldwide earnings from mobiles today represent 25 per cent. of total earnings, and that it is predicted that by 2000 they will represent one-third of total telecoms earnings. They are growing fast.
As we have heard, satellites are coming into play. There are eight new consortia gearing up for future mobile-based international communications. Iridium already has 60 of its 66 satellites up and on station. It expects to start work in September this year. Iridium is gearing up for future mobile-based international communications. The problem is that the cost of a mobile phone from Iridium will start at $3,000, and an average long-distance call will be between $1 and $2 per minute. That may restrict the number of people, at any rate at the beginning of those satellite services, who can afford to take them. I am told that the developing countries are keen to have those services—200 mobile operators in 80 countries have signed up with Iridium—because they see it as much cheaper than developing a land-based fibre network.
What of the future? Will communications across the Third World grow fast? I do not know, but costs are key to growth. Internet growth is clearly inversely proportional to costs. The USA is the world leader and often there is not even a local charge. It is interesting that Stockholm is the European leader. It is the only city in the world that owns its own broadband fibre right across the city. It can therefore allow people to link in at very low costs. Today more homes around the world have television than have telephones. Interactive services, in particular cable, will reach a new group of people. So I support the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord St. John, that interactive TV is likely to be a good way to reach more people.
What can Parliament do? It can give use of information and communications technology a much higher priority than at present. It should accept that it is people like us in Parliament who make or break the 1659 growth of information technology across the world, rather than the technology itself. We are trying to catch up with a people-related problem. Parliament could agree that it is unacceptable that the UK currently lies 10th out of 15 in the European competitiveness league table. That seems poor when one considers that ICT is directly related to improving competitiveness. It is time that we did something about that. Support for the need for the UK to be seen clearly as a leader, not just in Europe but around the world, is essential. Otherwise we shall end up being just a follower.
What action can the Government take to make Parliament more interested in lobbying for this important element in our competitiveness?
§ 3.41 p.m.
§ The Earl of Sandwich
My Lords, I am honoured to follow the example of the noble Viscount, Lord Chelmsford. I echo the last sentiment he expressed. I extend congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Hardinge, on introducing the debate and on passing on his considerable experience in publishing, about which I hope we shall hear more in the future. I thank him, too, for his kind remarks.
We are all astonished by the power of ICT or IT, whether we discover it for ourselves, from our children, as often happens, or perceive it in others. I remember being surprised twice last summer: first, by finding my 15 year-old nephew doing his homework by browsing on the Internet; and, secondly, seeing a shepherd in remote rural Portugal speaking on a mobile phone—no doubt ordering his dinner! IT appears to touch and to benefit everyone. It combines speed and sophistication with necessity and, like education, we all hope that it will be available to all. But of course it will not. It will more likely enhance the power of the "haves" than empower the "have-nots". We should not delude ourselves too far in assuming that information technology, however useful, can ever become a universal basic human resource like shelter and piped water.
This Government are full of enthusiasm for information technology, and rightly so, partly because of its evident potential in schools, and partly because of the promises which Mr. Bill Gates made to the Prime Minister but on which I understand he has not yet delivered, perhaps because of his current difficulties. We are always hearing from Ministers that the world has become fast-track and that we have to move up a gear into the global information super highway.
Last week, at Chatham House, the Secretary of State, Clare Short, rightly drew attention to the opportunities of IT for developing countries and the power of the Indian software market in particular. There is a saying in India now, "Micro chips, not potato chips", which also reflects the new government's determination to continue with economic reform. All of that is welcome.
There is no doubt that India has seized the advantage in providing software services for many leading industrialised nations of which it is itself one. It is a very good example of global interdependence. But with a government in New Delhi which regards nuclear tests 1660 as a high priority, one wonders how their policies will match the needs of the small rice farmer and the young rickshaw driver starting out in business. It is a far cry from high-tech Bangalore to rural Tamil Nadu, or from westernised urban élites in Asia and Africa to the millions of poor who, despite legislation by their own governments, still have no access to school let alone new technology.
Figures from last year's Human Development Report on education imbalances show that even in India, with eight years so-called compulsory education, the female literacy rate is still only 36 per cent. In Mozambique and Gambia it is only 22 per cent. The figures for Internet users are one per 100,000 people in developing countries compared with 223 in industrialised countries. Of course the situation is improving all the time; the figures show that.
It is revealing to study figures kindly provided by the Library via the African Internet. They show that users in South Africa are now up to 600,000, or one person in 65. Egypt and Zimbabwe have 20,000 and 10,000 Internet users, or one user per 3,000 and 1,000 people, respectively. Most other African countries are below 2,000 users, well below the average of one user per 100,000 people.
Such figures suggest that those who benefit from IT already own cars, pukka houses and existing technology, especially telephones. If we are really trying to help the poor and illiterate in the poorest countries and fulfil the mandate of the International Development White Paper, it may be costly and time-consuming to develop elaborate IT systems within the aid budget when the same sums could have been spent on the relief of poverty. One wonders whether it can really be part of DfID strategy to develop such systems except as part of its own training and distance education programmes.
I know that the British Council and the DUD are looking seriously at this problem because of its philosophical dimension. ICT is an attractive runaway commitment which, through improved information systems, enhances the council's many important education purposes. At the same time, however, it could entice DfID away from its quite steep development targets. It would be helpful if the noble Lord in his reply could explain its role in sustainable development outside the formal sector of education. For instance, who owns, creates and edits the information? Is it appropriate for DfID staff to assist our exporters to improve communications and thus trade relations for our benefit? Or will they ensure that it is primarily for the country concerned?
How can we be sure that IT is not another form of exploitation, like the introduction of large-scale commercial cash crops leading to more dependence on imported technology which subsistence farmers have long resisted as a threat to their livelihood? Who will control the technology? How can we guarantee that it will not get into the wrong hands and become a form of oppression? I do not mean to sound like a Luddite, or dog-in-the-manger, because I am an admirer of IT and use it myself, but I also see problems ahead.
1661 In that context, I was interested in last week's pertinent question by the noble Lord, Lord Randall of St. Budeaux, about social exclusion from IT and the reassurance we heard from the Government and the noble Viscount, Lord Chelmsford, that electronic commerce can be used to reduce social exclusion. I hope that we can hear that reassurance again today in the context of international development.
I need no persuasion so far as concerns school exchanges. From my time at Save the Children I know that learning across frontiers is enshrined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child and that both the British Council and several NGOs have developed successfully electronic links between schools at all levels of education. But we have not yet fully understood the true educational needs of the poorest. I know of a case in rural Afghanistan where a UN agency delivered heavy unwanted school furniture to a primary school and thus halved the space in which children were able to sit on the floor. In many parts of Asia you only sit on a chair when you have achieved a certain educational standard. We are still learning ourselves when it comes to appropriate education for others.
On the face of it, there are many forms of communications other than IT which need support and which help the poorest communities to identify problems and solutions. There are non-formal literacy classes, and night schools for adults and working children, such as I have seen in India and Bangladesh, where the priorities are often social as well as educational, helping to understand the ownership of land or to locate the source of advice and funding. There are many forms of oral communication used in health and education: posters, video, street theatre and puppets which are highly successful in urban and rural communities. Those will not be done away with in favour of one Internet user in the vicinity. Latin America has a strong tradition of communications of this kind. I am sure, however, that ways of adapting the new technology will be found.
In the sense that it assists the developmental process, I accept that IT, especially e-mail, is now a rapidly growing resource for NGOs and agencies. It is especially valuable to human rights agencies and those who belong to networks and hold electronic conferences. Provided it is properly financed, managed, backed up and serviced, as some noble Lords know in this place, computers should be seen as an efficient accounting, training and management tool.
Health and education professionals can use electronic media to enhance their own training and reflect new experience directly to students or beneficiaries, as they would anywhere in the world. In certain circumstances, such as video or radio, IT can be helpful in directly assisting projects in the field, for example, by providing educational resources and distance learning programmes which are valuable. As the noble Lord, Lord St. John, mentioned, the BBC World Service uses IT for its many English language teaching programmes.
1662 IT can directly help rural development. The Intermediate Technology Development Group, for example, is planning to strengthen the information systems of small-scale producers in Zimbabwe and local government offices in Peru through Internet training. Provided you know what you are looking for and, as has been mentioned, it is well-targeted, you can usually find technical information more efficiently on the net than anywhere else. Unlike most published media it will be updated regularly.
I repeat that these processes are to enhance agencies of sustainable development, not to assist sustainable development directly; to enable the helpers to help rather than empower the poor themselves. We should not forget that the aim of sustainable development is to give the poor opportunities which will release them from that dependence, not divide them from the rest of society with more inaccessible technology.
The Secretary of State said last week:In a world increasingly dominated by services, knowledge is increasingly a traded product. If knowledge can be disseminated more easily and more cheaply, location will be less important and if geography has dealt you a poor hand, this need not necessarily be a penalty".There may be some ambiguity here about the purpose of international development if knowledge is primarily a traded commodity. Section 3 of the Government's latest departmental report on international development restates the universal primary education target by 2015. It records that 150 million primary age children do not attend school and over 900 adults—two thirds of them women—are illiterate.
I applaud the efforts of DID through the Commonwealth to promote distance education and increased access to information through normal channels. But I should also like to ask the noble Lord what steps the Government are taking, while exploring these new technologies, to ensure that the poor themselves benefit from and, where possible, choose for themselves the information they will acquire.
§ 3.53 p.m.
§ Lord Thomson of Monifieth
My Lords, I join with other noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Hardinge, for introducing this important issue and speaking about it in such an authoritative way from his own direct experience.
I should say straightaway that I cannot speak in any authoritative way about information technology, having just emerged from the harrowing experience of my first lesson in a room upstairs on what is laughingly called a lap-top personal computer. But I have no doubt that the people of the developing world, the people of Africa, will be much more apt pupils in information technology than I am ever likely to be. I am sure that information technology has an important part to play in the development of international aid policy in the future.
On the whole, I share the broad balance of the argument put by the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, in regard to the place of information technology in overall international aid policy. There are two points I should like to make on these matters. One is of a general 1663 character about the background to international aid policy. The other is specifically about the role of English language text books in development aid policy.
My general point is to plead with the Government not to turn their governmental international aid policy into too much of a rigid dogma targeted narrowly on giving direct aid to the poorest people in the world. I use the phraseology of the noble Baroness, Lady Chalker, a Minister in the previous government.
The final aim of international aid policy is to relieve the poverty of the poorest people in the world, but the methods of doing that ought to be seen on a wide canvass. The World Bank has already been quoted as pointing out that to invest in literacy is probably one of the most effective forms of investment in the final development of economic and social welfare.
But in my view, the investment in literacy should be made on a broad and balanced educational front with many different aspects, of which information technology is no doubt a part. The illiteracy of the poorest children is one aspect, but the educational campaign must be seen on many levels. Certainly, for the foreseeable future, books are bound to continue to play a major role in that campaign. Nor is the educational element in overall aid policy to be seen in the widest possible way in terms of the groups that it affects. It must not only be seen as being directly related to economic and social development but should be for education in democracy and good governance. These forms of educational help to the poorer countries of the world are as important as direct education in the economic field.
I should perhaps declare an interest as a trustee of a charity which deals with the training of journalists in the third world and the countries emerging from the Soviet empire. The money that is devoted to providing help in training for democratic practices is extremely important. At times, one certainly has the impression that the Department for International Development sees things too narrowly, in a purely economic straitjacket, and does not see the wider considerations that I am seeking to argue.
We are in a fortunate position in this country in that English has become the world language of education. It is said that 800 million people around the world are either learning or are wanting to learn English. The role of the BBC in that has been mentioned and it is an important role. I have the impression—and I hope I am mistaken—that the Government sometimes feel quite defensive about that. I hope that the present Secretary of State, who has an admirable idealism in this matter, is not, as is sometimes reputed, holding the belief that to teach English is some kind of neo-colonialism. English is not a British language or a British possession. It is a world possession. But it is a very great asset from our point of view and we should make the most of it.
The other specific point that I wish to make is about the government-supported provision in relation to books for the third world. A long time ago, I was much involved in the parliamentary campaigns which led to the setting up of the ELBS. I do not believe that because a scheme has worked well it should be considered to be written in tablets of stone. I do not dissent from or 1664 dispute the fact that in March 1997, the previous government finally ended a book provision scheme which had, during its lifetime, done great service. It had run for over 30 years. It had enabled just under 1 million students per year in 54 developing countries to buy text books at one-fifth or one-third of the normal price. All that was at a cost to the taxpayer of about £1.3 million per annum. That was its record and now it has gone.
However, when the scheme was abolished, the former Secretary of State promised this House that long before it finally ceased it would be replaced by something better. That promise was not honoured by the previous administration and I am sorry to have to say that since coming to power a year ago, the new Government have given no indication of what will be the book provision policy or even whether they will have one. The Department for International Development has a working party on books and information which I very much welcome. The previous administration had a working party on those matters. In our debates before the general election, some of us raised the complaint that those working parties did not seem to work with very great dynamism and were not producing results, far less governmental decisions.
I hope that the present Government will not continue that practice. I hope we can hear from the Government—and perhaps from the Minister answering the debate today—that that working party will report quickly and that the Government have ideas about carrying those matters forward. The noble Lord, Lord Hardinge, mentioned some practical proposals; for example, a voucher scheme. I do not take a view about the merits of any of those, but I take a strong view from these Benches that the Government should be acting on those matters. The educational element of aid policy is vital. Although it has many different facets, the provision of low-cost books for students in the poorest countries of the world will remain an extremely important matter for many years ahead.
§ 4.2 p.m.
§ Lord Chorley
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Hardinge, has initiated a most interesting debate. He has quite rightly reminded us that books and journals are just as much a matter of technology as the computer, and certainly for my part, that is rather more comfortable technology. He spoke also with great knowledge and experience. He is an excellent example of the benefit which your Lordships' House can gain from people with real experience who represent the hereditary element in the working of this House.
He spoke, too, about the work of the British Council, again with real knowledge. I rather felt that, as its deputy chairman, I should be speaking about the work of the council. But, in a sense, there is little I can add to what he said other than to dot a few "i's" and cross a few "t's".
The noble Lord mentioned libraries and I make two points about those. First, the council's libraries are not there to gratify the needs of expatriate communities around the world. Nowadays, they tend to be reference libraries for technical and professional people. The 1665 libraries that I have visited around the world seem to me to be dominated by computer screens and the Internet just as much as they are by books and journals.
The latest figures that I have show that the British Council's libraries have 450,000 members who borrow 10 million books per year. Therefore, I suggest that the council's work lies at the heart of promoting international development through an up-to-date mixture of both new and old technologies.
This afternoon, I should like to draw attention to a rather different world of information technology. It is almost as old as the written word, which is what we have been talking about, and it, too, has been hugely impacted by the advent of the computer. Indeed, I would judge it to be even more impacted than the written word.
I want to talk about the effect of the computer on the world of maps and map-related information. I hope that my noble friend will accept that graphics and spatial representation come within the terms of his Motion. I hope, too, that he will accept that international development, to which his Motion refers, is much wider than third world development on which most speeches have tended to concentrate.
I am speaking about a rather specialised area. Nevertheless, it is an area of extremely wide application. It tends to be talked about under the shorthand of the initials GIS—geographic information systems. Briefly, it is the application of computers to the handling of data which has locational significance; that is, geographic information.
Simplistically, it could be described as computerised mapping, but it is much more than that. It is much more than the conventional data which we tend to expect to find on a map, important though that is. For example, it is estimated that 80 per cent. or so of statistical data which the Government collect routinely—and it is a huge array of data—has a locational or geographical significance. Just a few moments ago, I jotted down some aspects of that. For example, practically all socio-economic data become much more powerful if they can be related to place—population and demography, health, housing statistics, expenditure statistics, crime statistics; in the field of local authorities, planning and transport and the management of their estates; in the commercial field of marketing, warehouse location, factory location, shop location; the command and control systems of the police and emergency services; and in the whole world of utilities. I could go on, but I fear that I should bore your Lordships even though I have 14 minutes.
The paper map was of course a brilliant invention, but it has considerable limitations. You cannot put very many different types of information on a sheet of paper without it becoming extremely cluttered. Therefore, it becomes rather difficult to understand visually the relationships in space between many different kinds of data. Then again, there is the problem which all map users come up against, a kind of Murphy's law, that the area of our interest always seems to be in the corner of the map. It is said that battles always happen in the corner of a map. Then again, distances and especially areas are rather cumbersome to measure.
1666 Modern computer techniques have the ability to free us from all those constraints. It has been said that GIS is to geography and geographic analysis what the microscope was to the advancement of biology or the telescope to astronomy. The invention of a new instrument opens up a whole new world.
The potential of the computer in that area was first appreciated 30 years ago and the Ordnance Survey started experimental work about 25 years ago. The problem then—and indeed the problem until as recently as about 15 years ago—was that recording data in map form and in a way in which they could be usefully analysed consumed huge amounts of memory and processing computer power. The computer revolution in the 1980s and the 1990s, epitomised by the PC, has changed all that. It has completely changed the GIS world.
In 1982, the Select Committee on Science and Technology decided to take digital mapping and the related topic of remote sensing as a subject of inquiry. One of our recommendations was that the Government should set up a committee to look at the handling of geographic information because of the breadth and importance of the subject to government and more generally. A committee was in fact set up in 1985 under my chairmanship and we reported in 1987. We recognised then that GIS was a very important tool both because of its power and the breadth of its application. We therefore saw the need to promote it and hence to identify the barriers that needed to be overcome.
Last year, 10 years on, the Association for Geographic Information, which was established following our report and of which I have the honour to be president, organised a seminar to review progress. For example, the Ordnance Survey had, several years ahead of its already accelerated schedule, completed its main digitising programme. I believe that no other country in the world can claim that, and I pay tribute to an organisation which has transformed itself quite totally in recent years.
However, there was general agreement in our seminar that there remains a problem of poor awareness of the potential benefit from handling geographic information by these IT techniques—a lack of awareness in the private sector and in government both local and national. The latter is particularly important because, as I said, it is government who collect a huge amount of data, much of which remains unavailable publicly; and indeed, which would be extremely valuable. This lack of availability was one of our seven barriers and I regret that it remains so today. As someone said to me the other day, the technology is not the problem nowadays, the information is. The technology is available and affordable, but the information is not.
That leads me on to international development. I should like to begin by saying a few words about Europe. Britain has played a leading part in promoting both the survey side and the pure IT side mainly by way of professional associations. The European issues are somewhat similar to our domestic problems. For example: the problems of awareness and data availability, together with the need to foster good practice; and similar but more intractable problems of 1667 the need for standards and the harmonisation of data and attributes if we are seriously to talk about a single market. Then there is the need for, or the advantage to be gained from, fostering the development of the European GIS industry; an industry which is dominated by the US in regard to hardware and software but where, nevertheless, there is a huge further added value component.
I should like to encourage the Government to pursue these matters with the European Commission, especially through the current proposals which are called the GI2000 and the INFO2000 schemes. Nor should we forget that, in the European connection, the importance of both the old and the new technologies to the development of our eastern European sister countries, which we hope will shortly join the European Union.
I very much doubt whether the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, has been briefed on the applications of geographic information systems in the European Union. Perhaps they are a rather specialised topic. I certainly do not expect him to reply today in any full sense. However, perhaps the noble Lord will be good enough to draw my points to the attention of his colleague in government, who I suspect may be Mr. Nick Raynsford at the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions.
More relevant, I suspect, to the noble Lord, and indeed to the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Hardinge, would be the importance of maps and the new technology in the third world and its development. In the post-war world, the Directorate of Overseas Surveys did a staggering job in mapping the Commonwealth and our colonies through our aid programmes. That work has now been wound down, but new problems which require new maps and the use of GIS are emerging. For example, the huge growth of urbanisation and the poor quality of much of the housing and infrastructure. One simply cannot develop housing and city infrastructure without maps and the use of the new technologies. One cannot eradicate poverty without decent housing, water, electricity supplies and streets. There is, therefore, a significant requirement for relevant IT programmes in our aid programmes. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord St. John of Bletso, referred to GIS in terms of disaster relief, and so on.
The industry about which I have been speaking is estimated now to be worth, globally and world-wide, 14 billion dollars a year. As I said, it is dominated by the US in hardware and software, but I believe that we in the UK are second to none in the applications side and that there is great potential for it in international development, both first world and third world.
§ 4.15 p.m.
The Earl of Erroll
My Lords, I approach this debate from the point of view of a person who uses computers to communicate with several countries, ranging from India to Colombia and including America; indeed, all over the place. My purposes are for business development—in other words, small businesses which may expand into large businesses. At least one hopes that that will be so. I believe that that is a practical way to help people, countries or development. It also helps 1668 me because it diversifies outside this country and also out of Europe. Indeed, one never knows what will happen in the future. However, that is perhaps a different point when considering international development.
One needs to disseminate information widely. One also needs to disseminate training, as well as business contacts, and thereby put people in touch with one another. The big advantage of using IT in that respect is that one can time-shift. One does not have to be awake at the same time as others. One can put out information, or whatever it is, on the Internet or through e-mail and receive answers. In fact, one can organise things much more easily. Moreover, as I hate writing letters, it is a very nice system because one does not need to be nearly so formal with e-mail, and that can be quite useful. However, it is possible to disseminate information very widely and swiftly and keep people up to date with developments. Indeed, the political developments in a country can affect what businesses are having to do there. They may have to adapt very rapidly. Alternatively, if one is trying to expand somewhere new, it can be quite tricky finding out what the real local issues are. To have people on the ground feeding one information quickly can be most useful, and it saves a fortune in telephone calls.
The disadvantage I find with the Internet as a whole—and I am really thinking mostly of that concept—is information overload. There are tonnes of knowledge out there; indeed, whatever you want to know, it is there. As people say, knowledge empowers people to do things. However, if there is too much knowledge available, how does one filter it down and find out exactly what is needed? The purpose is extremely important. It is all very well knowing lots of things, but, if one cannot apply that knowledge to anything one is not doing much good for humanity or perhaps for oneself.
Although everyone talks of the Internet being marvellous, I find it terribly slow. I often become most frustrated and give up, especially if I am getting sleepy, the hour is late, or the Americans have just come on line and the whole process has slowed down. I do not know whether it will get worse as intelligence agents start to use the system. Indeed, people will start instructing them to trawl the Internet for the information they want. That will give them even more of an information overload as regards their learning, and so on.
However, I shall leave the disadvantages of the Internet to one side. I am sure that, as usual, technology will rise to meet the challenge. It may not be great at present, but usually these things catch up with developments if there is a desire and a need to do so. The great advantage is the fact that one can communicate everywhere. Another advantage is that intellectual work can be carried out anywhere. Indeed, ideas suddenly have no frontiers, although some people may regard that as being dangerous because people can be communicating both on a personal and impersonal level worldwide.
Although some people say that the breaking of such barriers can be dangerous and question whether or not we should be filtering out information, and so on, it is 1669 just the same as radio. I am sure that people said the same thing about the BBC World Service. Even though some countries tried to stop it, one can never block out such developments entirely. But did that produce a revolution? No, it did not. Many people worry far too much about whether such things should be blocked.
I view information technology as a great opportunity for the free interchange of ideas. However, time must be available to apply oneself to it. I shall return to the theme of time. If the use of computer-based information technology to publish and disseminate information is to be promoted, it must be made easier. If I had not worked with computers since the mid-1970s writing software, I am not sure whether I would be on the Internet now. Every time my Internet service provider changes hands, I struggle for up to a month to get it to work again. It is amazing how difficult that can be. I know that I am not the only one who experiences problems. The fact is there are better things to do with one's time. It is all very well having this facility but one has to do something with it.
My noble friend Lord St. John made the important point that it is telecommunications that matter. Without a telecommunications channel, you cannot communicate. If telecommunications do not progress satisfactorily, that will undermine the growth of the Internet as a medium. The noble Viscount, Lord Chelmsford, referred to the bandwidth. This is not just a matter of learning; one has to know how to apply one's knowledge. Those who have to struggle with the technology will not have time to do other things. However, it is the "doers" who create wealth. Most of them feel the need to spend that wealth, and the wealth trickles down. I know that not everyone will agree with that. The Internet is not a perfect system, but then what is? I have never felt that the purpose of a speech is to fill the time provided. I shall allow others to make their contributions.
§ 4.21 p.m.
§ Lord Redesdale
My Lords, I too wish to thank the noble Lord, Lord Hardinge of Penshurst, for introducing this worthwhile debate. I wish to mention the work of the Computer Office in the House of Lords. The staff there do amazing work to bring noble Lords up-to-date with the technology. As my noble friend Lord Thomson of Monifieth pointed out earlier, he is only just gaining access to the world of computers and the Internet. One of the interesting aspects of information technology is its accessibility.
However, if one cannot access a computer, information technology must be viewed at a much more basic level; namely, at the level of books. I know that the subject of the debate is information technology, but in the context of the developing nations we need to consider the use of books. I realised how important books are when I was a backpacker in Africa. I spent a year travelling north from Zimbabwe. I gained some indication of the value placed on books when I finished the book that I had acquired in Harare and was seeking someone with whom to trade it. I came across someone who had two books. I swapped my book by Ben Elton 1670 for a book by Jeffrey Archer. I thought that was a ridiculously high price to pay—I realise that the noble Lord, Lord Archer, was present earlier today—but I feel that I got the better of the deal because the other book on offer concerned the history of the Rolling Stones in which I had no interest at all. However, that was the choice on offer. For many people in the third world there is little choice.
As my party's spokesman on international development, I have had the opportunity to monitor many elections in sub-Saharan Africa. However, it is ridiculous to see a hereditary Peer monitoring democratic elections! I visited Malawi, Tanzania, South Africa and Mozambique. I gained a first-hand view of more village schools than I believe many people will see in their lifetime as most polling stations are situated in village schools. We all have our own view of what a school should look like. Many village schools in Africa are basically a shell. Most schools have a roof but they rarely have furniture. Many schools do not even have a concrete floor. A teacher told me that the school building was no longer used because of the problem of parasites entering children's feet in the school building. Many of the schools have one crumbling blackboard with chalk. Books are a rarity. Their value can be gauged by the care with which they are looked after. We must be aware of the importance of books in the developing world, particularly for people who live in rural areas. This problem of under-resourced education facilities will not go away. The failure of the G8 Summit to address the problem of international debt will result in many developing countries spending money to service their debts rather than spending that money on their education budgets. In many developing countries a lack of books means a lack of literacy. Development in its purest form must be linked to literacy. Without literacy there is no way to break the poverty cycle. The only way to reduce the high rate of population growth in many developing countries is through female literacy. In that way women can learn how to control the size of their families.
I hate to be seen as a Luddite with regard to information technology as I believe it is the way of the future, but if that technology is to become widespread a number of problems will have to be overcome. One of the problems is the cost of the hardware which is excessively expensive. This even poses problems for schools in developed countries if they wish to acquire a fully integrated system. One also needs a reliable supply of electricity. That is something we in this country take for granted, but it is a rarity in many African countries. In many African countries there is also a lack of telephone lines. I remember that I waited six months in Harare to be connected to a telephone line. Of course without a telephone line one has no access to the Internet.
The noble Lord, Lord St. John of Bletso, talked about making cheaper information technology available to the developing world. That will happen only when the developed world realises it has a responsibility to subsidise satellite link ups and cellular phone networks in Africa. Without such a subsidy it will be difficult to develop an integrated network there.
1671 One of the main access points to the Internet and IT is through the British Council. I have seen the on-line services in libraries in many parts of the world—in Africa, Pakistan and even Yemen. That has to be valuable. Although books are of great value, the lead given by the British Council in its work in many of the libraries around the world will mean that others go on-line. Those small pockets will develop, teaching more and more people how to use the technology.
I return to the concept of accessibility. There is a problem. Information technology is available in developing countries, but to very small groups of people. A gap is developing, not only north/south, but within developing countries between rich and poor. Those who have the money in developing countries have access to the Internet; whereas the vast proportion of the population do not.
We live in a shrinking world. One of the great values of information technology is that we are now able to look into areas about which we have received no information previously. I can point to one very real case. I do not believe that there would have been so much newspaper coverage of the situation in Sierra Leone had it not been for my noble friend Lord Avebury surfing the Sierra Leone website.
As my noble friend Lord Thomson of Monifieth pointed out, books are presently the bedrock of information technology in developing countries. Unlike computers, they rarely crash. If the Government are to meet their commitments to combat poverty set out in the White Paper, they are going to have to examine how to make books more widely available. I wish to put a question to the Minister which I hope this debate will lead him to answer. I declare an interest as a trustee of the body that produces educational low-priced sponsored texts, based on the old ELBS organisation. Does the Minister see a way of supplying funding in the short term to keep that organisation going? Until some of the texts that it is sponsoring are distributed, there is a cash shortage of between £50,000 and £100,000. That sounds a large amount of money; however, if it is provided, the ELST will possibly be able to supply books to many people in the developing world. I hope that the Minister will respond positively.
§ 4.33 p.m.
My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hardinge of Penshurst, for introducing this debate. It has been fascinating. I am universally impressed by the skills of the speakers. I hope that I might contribute to it—if only a little spice. I was particularly impressed by the description by the noble Lord, Lord Hardinge, of the state of the British Council library in Bombay. I wish that we could say the same of our own Library here. Perhaps we can do something about exporting those vast shelves of unused books to people in the third people who would find a better use for them in the third world—though looking at some of the titles, perhaps they would prefer something else!
In spite of the many and diverse contributions to the debate, I wish to concentrate on the theme set by the noble Lord, Lord Hardinge; namely, whether an 1672 approach should be taken centrally, by us or under our inspiration, to help provide the core educational book/computer information resource for those who will be involved in educating the educators.
If one looks at the central motivation of DfID, which is now focused on poverty elimination, one gets a good deal of leverage as to what can be done to improve health and education. That leverage is gained by examining what can be done to educate those who will be involved in improving health and education in those countries, and by providing them with the raw materials that they need—principally, information. It is an astonishingly effective way of applying money towards the objectives that DfID has set itself.
Unfortunately, in the White Paper, DfID has confined itself to examining particular ways of delivering help. It states that it wishes to focus on country-by-country plans. There is a trend against those projects which bring benefits in the long term and towards projects that have more immediate effect and more potential for headlines. The sort of projects referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Hardinge, benefit from being run centrally.
If we are talking about providing a flexible resource so that libraries and colleges in the developing world can have access to the information that they need, we are talking these days about the considerable level of skill and knowledge that is required to help those institutions find their way to the information they need in the most effective and rapid fashion. We are looking at skills in the maintenance and design of computer systems that will not be common in the countries to which we are referring. We are looking at a wide understanding of what information is available, where it can be acquired, and where the best deals are to be found. Even farmers combine into co-operatives for these types of project. This sort of purchasing is much better done centrally.
I do not suppose that it is a task that DfID would wish to undertake itself. It would be best done by a commercial or semi-commercial contractor, depending on what form of project was proposed by the British Council. Whatever happens, there has to be a central project which is sold to the countries concerned. If the task is carried out on a country-by-country basis—as anyone who has talked to DfID in the field knows—that sort of project falls to the bottom of the pile. It never gets done: it is too small; it takes too much time; it is too specialist, and people in those countries do not know how to handle it. A central resource and central budget are required, for which local teams then compete. Then there is something to go for—because any local team wants to bring more resources into the country it is looking after, and the whole project will work that way round.
A project of this sort needs a base load. A project cannot be run to provide this sort of flexible information resource to a whole host of different educational establishments around the third world on the ad hoc basis that "perhaps someone will start it running somewhere". A base load has to be provided from day one in order to develop the systems and expertise and maintain them at a level which is useful. So the system must be centralised if it is going to work.
1673 All these debates suffer from having the Minister speaking last. One does not know what the Government will say about these matters and it is difficult to comment. However, I anticipate that the Minister will say no. He will say no in a nice way, in the way the Government always do—namely, by not saying yes. Anything other than a definite commitment has always meant no from a government, as one can see from the educational book scheme and others. Unless a definite commitment is made to go ahead and take action, it means that the idea is into the long grass and we shall never see it in operation.
The Minister will say no because this Government are interested in, and committed to, country-by-country attitudes. They will say no because the whole pattern in DfID's activities is that the long term is being left alone. Projects such as GIS surveys and pilot studies laying the foundations for good things that may come about five or 10 years down the road are being abandoned and down-played in the plans being made by DID. The pleasant little story about the difference between giving a man a fish and giving him a fishing rod is being forgotten, let alone expanding that idea to providing countries with fishing-rod makers or people to teach fishing rod makers, and the resources to help people teach fishing rod makers. That whole idea seems to be vanishing into the haze. The coming idea is that projects need to be immediate, have measurable effect in the short term, and be focused on the immediate elimination of poverty; the idea of achieving the same end more sustainably and structurally over the long term is going. The whole focus is on eliminating poverty in the short term, without examining the underlying structure.
For all the lip service that they pay to technology, the Government have no real understanding of it and no real interest in it either. In the course of the debate, the Minister's Back Benches have been all but empty. I am delighted to see that there is at least one representative temporarily adorning them. I am also glad to see the Bishop, not that Bishops need to have much interest in the Internet. Having a direct line to the Creator must be a very acceptable substitute.
The Minister must have felt very alone in the debate with no contribution or even interest from his Back Benches. That reflects what is at the heart of the Government: very little fundamental interest in international development or in technology. Any government who understood what technology and information were about would have made a little more effort to improve, for example, the provision of e-mail answers to Written Questions by Members of this House. It has taken them a year to continue to say no. It is totally disgraceful and I am sad to say that it reflects the answer we shall hear from the Minister. Perhaps I am wrong—I should be delighted if that were so, but the facts are against it.
The noble Lord, Lord Chorley, spoke movingly about GIS and its benefits. But as I am sure the Minister knows, the amounts that will be spent by DfID on such projects are down this year, will be down next year and there are no plans to revive them.
1674 The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, spoke, in the voice which I am used to hearing from this Government, of the importance of immediate effects, of his worries about information technology and inappropriate development. I believe those attitudes shown by the Government are deeply misplaced. If the third world is to compete with us, they must have equal access to information. They cannot compete with us if they are kept in the dark. Germany and Japan did not revive after the last war by going back to 1916 technology and staying a generation or two behind; they took advantage of the devastation and their lack of current technology to leapfrog. That is what happened in the Far East and it is what the third world must look to do. It must not get stuck in the past.
I quite agree with what the noble Earl said; people must choose for themselves the information they wish to acquire. That is what the Internet is about; it is what modern technology is about. It is the kind of project which the noble Lord, Lord Hardinge, talked about, enabling a library not just to subscribe for a row of dusty old journals for which it has occasional use, along the pattern of the Library of this House, but to be able to choose exactly what information it wants for the projects its people have in hand so that it spends the limited money it has much more effectively than it could on its own. That is the kind of benefit we would hope to achieve from a project of this kind. I should be totally delighted if the Government said, in regard to that benefit, that they also were interested in achieving it, but I should be very surprised.
§ 4.43 p.m.
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, at least I agree with the opening remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. It has been a fascinating debate, probably more fascinating than many of us anticipated. I am deeply impressed by the varied expertise of noble Lords who are experts in both the new technologies and the old. In the case of the noble Lord, Lord Thomson, he is just about transferring himself from one to the other. It has been an impressive debate.
I have, however, to take issue with the more strategic remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, if I may put it that way. I do not believe that his analysis of the Government's approach on the elimination of poverty and development strategy is correct. The White Paper which was received a few months ago commits us clearly to the pursuit of internationally agreed targets that encompass not only poverty elimination but also economic well-being generally, human development, environmental sustainability and regeneration.
Those are broad-brush matters. It is a strategy which addresses many of the aspects of development, although it is true that we have a particular aim of reducing the poverty levels of the poorest in the world. None of those targets will be achieved unless we develop strong partnerships between western developed countries, the development agencies, the voluntary organisations and the private sector. Nor, as the debate has demonstrated, will they be achieved unless we all take advantage of the appropriate technologies at all levels of education and training, in particular to enhance learning by 1675 women, as the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, said, which has a profound social impact. Also, learning is important for children and young people. We must increase the general capacity of developing countries to develop their own specialist and professional skills.
In that respect, there are all the range of technologies that have been covered this afternoon: books, journals, the Internet, radio, television, computer technology. All have a significant part to play. We recognise in this House the need to strengthen and enlarge the role of technology.
At the same time, we must recognise that there are fundamental problems such as attaining basic literacy, providing minimal physical facilities and educating teachers to a reasonable level before those levels of technology can be most effectively deployed.
The worldwide advance in information and communication technologies must often seem a world apart for some countries which currently lack the basic infrastructure or resources, such as textbooks and basic learning materials. Nevertheless, the technological revolution is not only inescapable but also gives us enormous opportunities. The question is whether countries have the capacity within their education systems to adjust to change and develop equality of access to information technology without the gap between rich and poor widening.
It is ironic that new technology which has the potential to contribute to meeting all those needs and solving many problems in the developing countries could fall because of the lack of resources, infrastructure and trained personnel to benefit from them.
It is important to stress, in response to the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, and others, the vital role education plays in the approach of DfID in both its national programme and multilateral programmes. In addition to emphasising country programmes, we have a strong thematic approach to education in the developing world. As has been promised for some time, the DfID will shortly be issuing 'a new policy paper on education policy and development. Noble Lords will have to wait until towards the end of the summer for it to appear, but I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, will accept that it is not too far into the long grass for a vital programme.
In the meantime, I can record many of the areas in which DfID has already been engaged in education for the developing world. We have recently committed over £100 million to basic education projects in a number of countries such as India, Pakistan, Malawi, Zambia, South Africa and Guyana. However, the emphasis is not solely on basic education, it is also on the need for quality higher level education and skills training so that the developing countries develop an educated population providing indigenous professional workers: teachers, doctors, nurses, entrepreneurs and all other professionals. Those are essential if countries are to sustain growth or reverse the downward trend in their economic development and growth. Our partner countries increasingly identify those levels of education as areas where they need help.
1676 DfID is planning substantial education sector development programmes with countries such as Tanzania, Ethiopia, Ghana, Uganda and Pakistan. The aim is to improve overall sectoral performance at every level of education. The programmes will address fundamental issues such as the basic provision of textbooks, learning materials, and access to new technology and teacher education. We see the programmes as helping countries develop their own policy frameworks for sustainable development and the achievement of economic growth. But many of them are expensive and complex programmes requiring careful planning in partnership with the recipient governments.
Even though we are looking at new ways to deliver our development assistance in a cost-effective way, we still maintain aspects of our tried and established programmes. For example, we aim to ensure that key individuals in the developing world can take advantage of UK academic expertise. Through the Higher Education Links Scheme, funded by DfID and managed on its behalf by the British Council, institutions and colleges in developing countries are "twinned" with higher education institutions in Britain.
Dt1D also supports a range of scholarship schemes aimed at enabling overseas students to study in the UK. That all contributes towards a central commitment to develop education, which approaches perhaps what lies behind the request of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, that we have a core approach to these matters.
The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, the noble Lord, Lord St. John of Bletso, and the noble Viscount, Lord Chelmsford, all emphasised the commitment to new technology which will be needed. We agree that the rapid changes in technology open up enormous opportunities whether in information technology, cable TV or telecommunications.
DfID has supported the Commonwealth of Learning (COL) since its establishment in 1988. Based in Vancouver its purpose is to create and widen access to opportunities for learning by promoting co-operation between universities, colleges and other educational institutions throughout the Commonwealth. It aims to strengthen member countries' capacities to develop the human resources required for their economic and social development. For example, in January this year COL hosted a meeting of education ministers from six southern African countries. The meeting resulted in substantive agreement on resource sharing between the six countries for a teacher training programme.
DfID is funding a number of studies through the Commonwealth of Learning to increase understanding of the problems of introducing new technologies and distance learning. These include a study in Ghana for an electronic library network and research programmes to look at the diffusion of appropriate technology. At CHOGM this year the Prime Minister announced a £500,000 project with COL to develop a new Commonwealth programme directed at literacy training for youth and adults, as well as skills enhancement for those teaching reading to children and others.
Through a UK NGO—Interaid—we are funding a pilot programme that will link schools in Birmingham and township schools in South Africa using the Internet. 1677 This provides an exciting example of how technology can help children and adults in less privileged schools and institutes of learning in the developing world.
There is also other, perhaps less new, but serious intermediate technology to be taken into account. A DfID-funded project in South Africa—ULWAZI—aims to deliver basic education for adults in a variety of South African languages by radio. Only two weeks ago, ULWAZI gained international recognition with a Sony Radio Award for its programme "The Last Voice", which was broadcast by the BBC World Service. That continues, as noble Lords have said, to perform a stalwart role in the whole field.
In the radio field, slightly further back, noble Lords will recall that we supported Trevor Bayliss's clockwork radio—a classic case of old wireless technology with new applications. Those studies and programmes are seen as building blocks towards a greater understanding towards the challenge and cost-effectiveness of new technology in developing countries.
In terms of TV, there is one type of information media that is available, if only on a communal basis, in most of the developing world. In relation to the use of video, more widely a number of training and education schemes are being supported by the department. A move towards interactive TV has a high potential for learning in those countries.
As regards the further development of telecoms, that has not featured largely in the aid programmes either of ourselves or of the EU. Primarily the transfer of telecoms technology is probably best achieved through the private sector. Nevertheless, telecoms and information technology that have access to the information technology that telecoms is bringing, can be highly beneficial. I understand the anxieties of the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, that it could develop into an exploitative and neo-colonial monopolistic dimension. But it is down to us in the West, in conjunction with the countries of the developing world, to use it creatively to reduce social exclusion and to provide expertise in order that developing countries can both make use of the technologies and begin to reduce costs.
One specific example in a still-high marginal cost area is the mobile phone. As the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, indicated, they are widely used in developing countries. That is primarily because of the non-existence or unreliable nature of fixed telephone communication systems. Were the costs relating to mobile phones to be reduced significantly, they could be a substantial new means of communicating information. The noble Earl referred also to the use of networks of e-mail in not only productive and enterprise structures, but also in the area of political development of human rights.
In all those areas, new technology is opening up new frontiers. It is part of DfID's commitment to ensure that the availability of new technologies is given access to the developing countries where we have all our programmes.
Probably one of the most fascinating contributions this afternoon was from the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, in relation to computer-based mapping techniques and 1678 the information presentation in graphic map form to which he was alluding. He is correct that I am not totally briefed in that area of technology. It seems to me that there are substantial potential developments in this area which we should pursue. It is important that progress is accurately monitored and much of that could be done by the kind of mapping techniques to which the noble Lord alludes. One area which has been drawn to my attention where we are already engaged in GIS monitoring projects is where the Natural Resources Institute, together with the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, are already working on a monitoring project in the health arena.
All of those exciting developments in new technology do not remove the vital importance of books and the basic achievement of literacy, as has been said by a number of noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord Thomson, Lord Hardinge and Lord Redesdale. There will always be a vital place in the scheme of things for the humble book. However, it is not always the cheapest form of communication these days and may decreasingly be the cheapest form of communication. Nevertheless, we rely very much on traditional means of communication through books and other printed material. Our country education programmes contain a substantial books element, such as allocating over £7 million to books provision in a primary education project in Kenya.
In the health sector, not only are we providing substantial back-up for literacy projects for women, but we are also supporting a medical textbook scheme with a specific priority focus in the health area. The noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, will be interested to hear that we have just received a commission research report on getting books to children in Africa. That addresses the very problems identified by the noble Lord and I am happy to make copies available.
For many years the department have supported Book Aid International—formerly known as the Ranfurly Library Service—an organisation with a worldwide reputation for getting targeted supplies of books to those countries which need them most. Noble Lords may recall that on 23rd April the Prime Minister attended the World Book Day event at the Globe Theatre. On that same day, DfID announced an increase in our support for Book Aid International to £500,000 over the next three years.
The role of the British Council was alluded to in this area by a number of noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, and we pay tribute to its role in continuing to provide books in many parts of the world. I say also to the noble Lord, Lord Thomson, that neither my right honourable friend the Secretary of State nor myself have any difficulty whatever in recognising the importance of the English language in the whole transfer of information and education. It is a major advantage which this country has and one that we will pass on to other parts of the world.
Noble Lords have raised the question of the book presentation programme and the former ELBS. The noble Lord, Lord Hardinge, indicated that he had changed his mind over the decision to close down the 1679 book presentation programme. Until 1989 it provided substantial quantities of books to institutions around the world. However, the general assessment at that time was that there was little point in maintaining a functional scheme when it was no longer in tune with the geographical and project-focused thrust of the aid programmes. It also proved difficult to manage cost effectively and in a targeted manner. There may be scope for a more limited BPP kind of programme targeted on particular institutions or individuals. However, we would not favour going back to the old scheme.
Likewise in relation to the ELBS, which was ended by the previous administration. I do not intend to go over those arguments. Its original purpose, which was to sell information books and to provide a limited pump-priming subsidy to publishers, was largely overtaken. When the ELBS closed down many noble Lords and others wanted to set up an alternative scheme. The noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, referred to the ELST in this context. We would be prepared to consider any proposals which ELST or other such organisations put forward in terms of targeted books' provision. What we would not wish to go back to, however, is a general book subsidy. Therefore, I fear there is no question of DfID paying ELST a blanket subsidy for the provision of books because the analysis of the destination and receipt of those books tends to indicate that it is not those areas which most need them that receive the greatest benefit.
The noble Lord, Lord Hardinge, raised the question of a voucher scheme. Whereas I understand that such schemes could possibly target assistance to poorer individuals, they would require a very intensive form of local management. If such schemes are to work, it really is for the national governments at the recipient end to start developing them. We do not see a major role for a global voucher scheme in this sense.
As has been indicated by the whole tone of this debate, the challenge to educate and train large numbers of people in the developing world has never been as critical and necessary as it is now and nor have the opportunities which are presented by new technology been as substantial. All our development policies will be geared to the aim of improving sustainable development and the elimination of poverty. The opportunities that new technology can offer will play a very substantial part. We have learnt a great deal this afternoon from the contributions of noble Lords.
Finally, last year the Government produced their general White Paper on international development. We will shortly be producing an education policy document from DfID and that will be published later in the summer. That will take up many of the things that have been identified in the debate and will set our strategy on education within the agreed international goal of universal primary education which we are determined to achieve as a contribution towards the elimination of poverty and sustainable development in the third world.
This has been an interesting debate. I shall certainly consider many of the suggestions put forward by noble Lords and pass them on to my colleagues in government 1680 responsible for the international development programme. The debate has shown the House of Lords at a high level of expertise. My feeling is that, whatever the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, thinks about the strategy from the Department for International Development, he is very much in tune with the approach we are taking to these problems.
§ 5.4 p.m.
§ Lord Hardinge of Penshurst
My Lords, I cannot imagine how one could possibly sum up the debate. It is one of the characteristics of being in your Lordships' House that one speaks about something one thinks one knows about and there appear not just the world's 10 leading experts on that subject but on related subjects of which one has never even heard.
I should like to thank everyone who spoke. I have learnt a lot. As I am sure that something terrible will happen if I fail to withdraw my Motion for Papers, I beg leave to do so.
§ Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.