In one of the most improbable partnerships of the Information Age, Cisco Systems Inc. has joined forces with the United Nations Development Program for an ambitious effort to use the power of the Internet to attack mass poverty in developing countries.
Their objective is to marry Cisco's technology with the UNDP's global presence to bridge the immense gap between what the U.N. organization calls "the knows and the know-nots." The company and UNDP will announce today the creation of what Cisco bills as the world's biggest Internet site, NetAid.org, which a series of rock concerts planned for Oct. 9 will help finance and publicize.
Ultimately, the hope is that even tiny villages in the Third World will have public computers linked to the Internet. Local artisans might use them to find markets abroad, the logic goes, and farm cooperatives might use them to study up-to-date agricultural techniques
The UNDP operates in 174 countries, including many whose governments have placed tight controls on the flow of information. The UNDP's new director, Mark Malloch Brown, described the NetAid effort as "thoroughly subversive, in ways that old-line dictators have trouble getting a handle on." He said he is betting that even rulers who don't want peasants or factory workers to have global access to information will be reluctant to shut down or expel the UNDP for providing it.
Cisco, the leading provider of computer networking hardware, is based in San Jose, where the culture of Silicon Valley encourages audacious thinking--not normally a characteristic of U.N. bureaucracies. But Brown, a former journalist and World Bank official, said he believes that "information is power for the world's poor," and the UNDP plans to deliver it.
"Extreme poverty is a huge problem, but it is beginning to be an addressable problem," he said.
Billions of people in the Third World don't even have electricity, let alone computers and Internet providers. According to the United Nations, "the literally well connected have an overpowering advantage over the unconnected poor, whose voices and concerns are being left out of the global conversation. Market forces alone will not rectify the imbalance."
Enter Cisco, along with KPMG, designer of the NetAid Web site and its electronic commerce component, and Akamai Technologies of Cambridge, Mass., which will disseminate the site's content through its network of 90 "data centers" around the world. Akamai, a privately held company created last year, provides Internet content delivery to catalogue retailers and Web searchers such as Yahoo.
According to the NetAid partners, when the site goes online Sept. 8, it will create "opportunities for people to learn, contribute time and money, exchange ideas and expertise and join with those leading the fight against extreme poverty. The site will have the capacity to handle 125,000 simultaneous live streams, about 10 times the size of any current streaming site, and 60 million hits per hour, 10 times the peak of the last Olympics and the 1998 men's World Cup" soccer tournament.
The goal, Cisco Executive Vice President Don Listwin said, is to provide a conduit for foundations, volunteer groups, corporations and individuals who have prospective solutions for Third World poverty to connect with people in poor countries who need help in obtaining education, finding markets for products, contacting health care providers or organizing workers.
"We know the farmer in Uganda doesn't have a PC, but the UNDP can provide a community center where he can get access," Listwin said. He and Brown said UNDP branches, other U.N. offices, churches and schools that may have electricity and computers can become information centers where local people can go to access NetAid--to find worldwide buyers for indigenous products, perhaps, or to seek information about an outbreak of disease.
U.N. officials said the concept of local Internet access centers is already spreading in countries as diverse as Mongolia, where the first Internet server was activated in 1996, and Estonia, where road signs indicate the distance to the next public facility where you can sign on. Having Akamai's servers in 90 sites will reduce costs by cutting the need for international telephone connections, they said.
"We're not going to change the dictator structure in Africa," Listwin said, "but we can make it easier for people who care, people who are outraged, to do something with a click."
Listwin said the question of whether the local centers will provide access to the entire Internet, pornography and all, "is a policy decision, not a technology decision, and I don't think it's been made yet. Obviously, the resource in a local office is going to be a scarce resource."
NetAid is scheduled to make a flashy global debut on Oct. 9 with simultaneous televised rock concerts in New York, London and Geneva, organized by, among others, singer Harry Belafonte, co-chairman of UNDP's Poverty Eradication Committee; Harvey Goldsmith, producer of 1985's "Live Aid" fund-raising marathon; and Don Mischer, an independent producer of extravaganzas such as the Kennedy Center Honors.
"When we put the concerts on television, hopefully people will be motivated to go to the Web site and do something," Mischer said. "This will be unique for television: We'll be telling people, 'Turn off your TV and go to this Web site.' " He said the concerts will feature "two dozen major artists," including groups that will reunite for this event, but he declined to name any, saying the producers are still negotiating with them.
NetAid is "an initiative to bring in people who have something to give," Listwin said. "This is the first time business, artists and the UNDP are coming together to fight extreme poverty."
He said each of the corporate participants in NetAid is putting up $5 million to $10 million to launch the site. "We have a social conscience," he said, but Cisco's motivation is not entirely altruistic. As Internet use grows worldwide, he said, "we'll be bringing more people into our business ecosystem."
CAPTION: A sign in Tallinn, Estonia, points to an Internet access point in National Library of Estonia in background.