Technology has the power to change the lives of people in the poorer parts of the world, says John Chambers – giving access to education, health and commerce, and transforming living standards and the economic prosperity of developing nations. But it requires partnerships between business and governments to harness that power and turn promise into progress

Almost four years ago, the world community agreed on eight ambitious Millennium Development Goals to complete by 2015. By working together and taking advantage of technology offerings, we can not only achieve these goals, but perhaps even exceed them.

We can make measurable strides in global health toward ending extreme poverty and hunger while at the same time reducing child mortality rates, improving maternal health and reversing the spread of HIV/Aids, malaria and other infectious diseases.

We can bring about remarkable improvements in the lives and prospects of people worldwide through education by providing opportunities for every child, promoting gender equality and empowering women. At the same time, we can also create a global framework for development that ensures environmental sustainability.

However, success in these areas depends on unprecedented cooperation and determination at every level on a global basis. It also requires that those who benefited most from the industrial economy of the 20th century ensure that the rest of world participates fully in the 21st century’s information, or knowledge, economy.

It is our responsibility to encourage and stimulate progress – which, I believe, is largely made possible through the widespread application of networking technologies and solutions. This success will be measured by greater access to education, higher productivity for organizations, governments and countries on a global basis, and increased standard of living worldwide.

Technology – a tool for equality and education

Last year, His Majesty King Abdullah II of Jordan said: “The capacity of the Arab economies to grow must increase if they are to absorb the expanding labour force. Growth is also essential in meeting important social goals – reducing poverty, improving the quality of life, enhancing health and more.”

To help address those needs, in June 2003 Cisco and His Majesty King Abdullah II participated in the launch of the Jordan Education Initiative (JEI), in partnership with two dozen World Economic Forum members.

The goal of this project is to create a model for effective internet-enabled learning that can be replicated and implemented across not just Jordan, but in other countries in the region, and then to implement it on a global basis.

To date, the leaders in Bahrain, Oman and the United Arab Emirates have already requested similar initiatives in their own countries. We are making true progress. Cisco’s participation in the JEI is a natural progression of our Networking Academy Programme. Networking Academies are the heart of a comprehensive, global blended learning programme that enables people around the world to obtain the skills they need to succeed in this global information economy.

The programme started in 1997 as a high school networking curriculum in the United States, and has grown to provide online and instructor-led training and hands-on laboratory exercises to over 400,000 active students in more than 10,000 academies in 150 countries.

Recognizing that strong global communities are good for everyone, including businesses, Cisco’s Networking Academy courses are taught in nine languages around the world. Knowing also that a country’s economy thrives best when all its citizens can participate equally in its rewards, many Cisco Networking Academies stress opportunities for women.

In Jordan, for example, Cisco is partnering with UNIFEM, under the patronage of Her Majesty Queen Rania Al-Abdullah, to increase the number of working women in Jordan. Of the 600 students who have enrolled in one of Jordan’s 10 Networking Academies to date, nearly two-thirds are women.

Technology – a tool for commerce and economic growth

Technology will change many aspects of our daily lives, including increasing the productivity and standard of living for communities and countries on a global basis. This provides communities with the ability to improve dramatically education and healthcare at all levels.

According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) and Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), when productivity of a country increases at 1% per year, the standard of living doubles every 70 years.

If it is driven at 3%, the standard of living doubles every generation. This means that our children will have twice the standard of living that we do. If productivity is driven at 5%, which I believe is attainable for many countries around the world, the standard of living doubles every 14 years.

In the United States currently, it has been proven that there is a direct one to one correlation between the percentage of capital expenditures on information technology and productivity increases. If you look at these two correlations over time, without exception, they are occurring on a global basis.

Information technology is a major educational and economic engine not only in the Middle East, but also in eastern Europe as elsewhere. In Hungary, for example, where the economy has been one of the fastest growing in central Europe for a decade, technology enterprises account for a quarter of the country’s industrial output.

Information technology can also help expand the reach of small businesses. Technology leveraged by the Rural Women’s Association Project, for example, has enabled women raising high-quality chickens in a poor area in the Northern Province of South Africa to find customers in nearby higher-income communities.

Technology – a tool for human health

In terms of global healthcare offerings today, the gap between the developed world and the world’s least developed countries is tragically wide. However, the potential for technology to bridge that gap is nearly limitless.

While daunting logistical challenges still remain – making life-saving products such as clean water, vaccines, drugs and medical equipment accessible around the globe – making life-saving information available in real time, to anyone worldwide, is within our reach.

We need partnership and cooperation to make this a reality, and we have already made progress. This past year, the World Health Organization (WHO) launched the World Health Academy, an online programme, to develop ways to use information technology to prevent disease, improve care, promote health and make health information accessible, simple and affordable to as many people as possible.

The World Health Academy includes 48 hours of e-learning curriculum, targeted at eight- to 25-year-olds, in nutrition and food safety, substance abuse, and the connection between healthy behaviour and blood safety.

Welcomed by the governments of Egypt and Jordan, WHO is piloting the programme in some 20 Egyptian and 20 Jordanian schools during the 2003-2004 school year and expects to expand it to additional schools in each region as well.

WHO developed the curriculum, and Cisco is providing the equipment, along with its e-learning expertise and technology. The project is still in its pilot stage. But our hope is that a successful initial deployment will lead to its further implementations in other developing regions such as the African continent.

Technology and education – the great equalizers

The internet and education are the two great equalizers in life. Working hand in hand, they provide greater access to educational opportunities for individuals, communities and nations, which in turn affect the standard of living and economic prosperity of countries.

With the increasing emergence of visionary and supportive governments, the world can look forward to continued progress in harnessing the productivity benefits from technology for greater educational, health and growth opportunities for people worldwide.

John Chambers
John Chambers is president and chief executive officer of Cisco Systems.