Many developing countries are unprepared for the impact of the year 2000 (Y2K) computer problem, and few have taken steps to safeguard their computer systems, the World Bank said in a report released last Tuesday.
According to a World Bank assessment of the problem, crisis-hit countries in East Asia, Latin America, and the former Soviet Union could also be seriously impacted. The report estimates that only 21 of 139 countries regarded as developing countries have taken concrete steps to address the problem.
The report says that the majority of developing countries, even the poorest, have computerized essential services such as power generation, telecommunications, food and fuel distribution, and the provision of medical care. The report says that a general failure of such systems could endanger the health, security, and economic well-being of people in the developing world.
"This is a global problem affecting not only industrial countries which are highly dependent on computers but developing countries as well," James Bond, Director of the World Bank's Energy, Mining & Telecommunications Department, and coordinator of Y2K compliance in the Bank's existing loan portfolio and Y2K grants to developing countries, noted in the report.
"While wealthy countries and large companies have the money and skilled technicians needed to immunize computers and their operating software from the Millennium Bug, many of our developing country clients cannot muster the resources to tackle a problem that most see as a vague and distant threat," he said.
Bond said that in a recent World Bank survey of Y2K preparedness in 139 developing countries, only 54 had initiated national Y2K policies; just 21 were taking concrete remedial steps to safeguard their computing systems; and 33 reported high-to-medium awareness of the problem but were not currently taking action.
However, the report warned that the mere existence of a national Y2K action plan should not be taken to imply that countries will be fully Y2K-compliant by the end of 1999, and the World Bank expects Y2K failures, according to Mohamed Muhsin, the World Bank's chief information officer responsible for the institution's own internal Y2K preparations.
In the report, he noted, "With less than a year left before January 1st, 2000, it's just not possible to fix all the world's Y2K problems in time. Because of all the information systems and the billions of programmable devices around the globe that need to be checked, and, if need be, repaired, developing countries must focus their limited resources on those sectors that are crucial for keeping the state and the national economy working."
According to the World Bank, key systems that should be immunized from the Y2K bug include:
power generation and transmission; national financial sector; national communications; transport links (such as ports, airports and railways); healthcare and education; food and fuel distribution.
The World Bank recently approved two loans for specific Y2K preparations, and others are being readied. A US$30 million [M] loan was approved for Argentina in December, followed last week by a $29 million [M] loan to Sri Lanka. A Y2K loan of $100 million [M] for Malaysia is being prepared for discussion by the World Bank's executive directors in March, the World Bank said, and Y2K components have been added to loans being processed for Turkey and Ukraine.
The Y2K problem mostly affects older software programs which use a two-digit data field instead of today's four-digit data field. Computer programs using a two-digit date field may not know whether "00" means 1900 or 2000, which could cause them to malfunction or shut down on Jan. 1, 2000.
The World Bank can be contacted on the World Wide Web at http://www.worldbank.org/.