THE BLOG

The Internet Can Change the Developing World

14/11/2014 12:18 GMT | Updated 13/01/2015 10:59 GMT

Ten years ago, in October 2004, there were 812m internet users worldwide - 12.7 per cent of the global population. The web had 50m sites; a Harvard student, Mark Zuckerberg, had just started Facebook, and Flickr had just been launched as a chat room for an online multiplayer game with real-time photo sharing.

Roll on 10 short years and, according to the International Telecommunications Union, by the end of 2014, there will be almost 3bn internet users - more than 40 per cent of the global population. The web now has 600m websites; Facebook has 1.32bn active users and Flickr has more than 87m users uploading 3.5m new images every day.

I think it's safe to say that the internet is a success! It's also safe to say that this explosion in usage is only going to accelerate. But what does that mean for people around the world - not just in the UK but in the developing world? Can access to the internet change their lives?

A Tata Communications' report, Connection World II, found that this explosion combined with our increasing reliance on the internet is having one obvious psychological effect on us. According to the report, the biggest fear of more than half of all UK users is not being able to connect to the internet and this fear is making them angry and anxious. But this feeling is not confined to UK users - a whopping 82 per cent of people surveyed in India admitted to this 'Fear of Missing Out' when not connected to the internet.

This fear is driving internet uptake. Usage in the UK is still growing but we will eventually reach the point where, except for young people new to the market, almost everyone who needs to be online is online and everyone who wants to have a home broadband connect has one. Internet penetration is now at 87 per cent in the UK and rising. But outside the Western economies the story is very different.

Despite years of huge growth in the West, still more than half the global population is not connected to the internet. In fact, in some countries, the internet is virtually non-existent: just 1.2 per cent of Myanmar's population has access, for example, and in eight Sub-Saharan countries - Ethiopia, Niger, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Somalia, Burundi, Eritrea and South Sudan - internet penetration is less than two per cent of the population.

However, the economic benefits of internet access are massive. According to research undertaken by Deloitte for Facebook, if Africa, Latin America and south and east Asia could raise internet adoption to the same level found in developed economies, it would boost their productivity by 25 per cent, increase GDP growth by 72 per cent and create 140m new jobs. If internet adoption was at the same level in the developing world as in the Western world, it would triple the number of global internet users.

In the West we see access to the internet as something that helps us do our job, enables us to build a career, entertains us, keeps us in contact with family and friends, and keeps us up to date. We know that the internet has created social and societal benefits but our economies are such that the advent of the internet did not necessarily transform our entire existence. In developing countries, however, if internet access was raised to the same rate as the West, the benefits would be much more profound. The figures in the Deloitte report are staggering: average incomes would rise by US$600 per head, lifting 160m people out of extreme poverty; online healthcare could save 2.5m lives and education of 640m children would be improved.

These benefits are huge. But costs, infrastructure and central government policy on roll-out are still a problem in developing economies. In India, for example, the National Optic Fibre Project is three years behind schedule. Nigeria, a country with relatively good uptake figures, trails behind others in the region due to high costs. Kenya and Tanzania are ahead of Nigeria because their governments built a nationwide infrastructure backbone, allowing low-cost provision. Closer to home in Romania, though the government has a broadband strategy that covers 2009 to 2015, it has apparently never identified how to implement or fund it.

But the tide is turning and developing countries are starting to create practical solutions to their big issues. They accept that all people need is access to the internet and it's in their interest to provide the conditions necessary to ensure this happens. Once people have internet access in developing countries the world will be a much more prosperous and equal place.

A McKinsey study in 2011 calculated that the internet was worth 3.4 per cent of GDP in 13 countries including the G8 major economies and large emerging markets such as Brazil, India and China. It accounted for more than 20 per cent of their GDP growth in 2004-09. Michael Chui, a partner at the McKinsey Global Institute, said: "Globally, it's worth more than sectors such as agriculture and energy."

I, for one, can't wait to see the growth rates when the developing world gets reliable internet access; when people can use the internet to start businesses, create jobs and work together to build their own future - millions of people's lives will be literally transformed. And that day cannot come soon enough.