Thirteen years ago, an international aid assessment summed up Estonia as "bankrupt, polluted and decaying." Today, it's climbing up through the economic ranks of the "upper-middle income" countries (like Mexico, Brazil and the Czech Republic), while many of its social indicators are better than some countries in the "upper income" bracket. The reasons are complex - cohesive national identity, well-educated population, traditional ties with Scandinavian countries - but one of them stands out: Estonia has made the world's strongest commitment to providing technology for all. In fact, in Estonia, Internet access is a human right.
But it's one thing to promise technology, and another thing to deliver it. Estonia's delivering like a pizza guy on speed. Take the groundbreaking Tiigrihüppe (Tiger Leap) program: in the last six years, it has wired 98% of Estonia's schools, provided an average of more than one computer per twenty students (running about 40 new software packages in Estonian), created a national learning network for teachers and trained 40% of them in "advanced computer skills."
And Tiger Leap has proved the thin edge of the wedge. Young Estonians are crazy for the Net, Linux and mobile computing (more than 70% carry cellphones). Estonians now use the Net at a higher rate than the French or Italians. To accomodate the demand, the Estonian government has worked with the UNDP to open up hundreds of free Internet access centers, from downtown Tallinn to remote islands in the Baltic.
Even more amazing is the Baltic nation's absolute commitment to digital transparency. Estonias President, Lennart Meri, supposedly answers his own email. The state IT advisor attends cabinet meetings. Almost all state services are online, as are tax filings and the state budget. Almost everything the government does online is open to public scrutiny, and almost everything it does is done online:
"Inside Tallinn's medieval parliament and prime minister's offices, cabinet ministers and legislators have gone completely virtual, conducting meetings, votes, and document reviews on their networked flat-screen computers.
"'We're the first paperless government,' says former Prime Minister Mart Laar, from the entrance to the courtyard of his old office. 'Journalists have compared [the building] to the Starship Enterprise, and it's true.' he adds, beaming with pride."
Bits ain't bread, but Estonia proves it's a hell of a lot easier to get the second when you got the first.