Working Paper
Information Technology and Economic Development

An Introduction to the Research Issues

There is substantial evidence that new information technologies are in many ways transforming the operations of modern economies. More than half of employees use a computer at work in the most advanced industrial countries. About 10 per cent of the value of all private investment in fixed non-residential capital is devoted to computers and peripheral equipment in the United States and some other economies. This share goes up to 25 per cent when investment in information processing equipment is included. Nevertheless, all spending on information technology, including hardware, software and services, does not amount to more than 3-4 per cent of nominal GDP in these countries. The share is, however, increasing rapidly, indicating that a steady state has not yet been reached.Developing countries spend much less on information technology. The stark contrast in the penetration of information and communication equipment between the industrial and developing world is best summarized by the fact that more than half of humanity has never made a telephone call. The sharp decline in the price of computing and communication- about 20 per cent a year in the case of computers-is, however, bringing this technology within the reach of many, if not yet all, developing countries. The question about the costs and benefits arises naturally.Even in industrial countries, the impact of information technology has not been as deep or pervasive as the debate about the benefits of the global information society sometimes makes it appear. The literature review on the US experience shows that there is neither a 'productivity paradox' nor a substantial 'information payoff' associated with investment in computers or other forms of IT, but they seem to be 'pulling their weight'. This may, however, be a characteristic feature of the US economy in its present stage of development. Modern business information systems are being developed for the needs of large corporations in industrial countries. More research on other countries, developed and developing, is needed before firm policy conclusions can be drawn for economic development. This research should explore the role of information technology both as an intermediate input in production and as a final good in consumption. This paper prepares ground for such work.