The developing world is held back by, well, a lack of development. But not just any development. In the previous century, a major canal or railway or oil pipeline project could enrich a poor country. Today, the single most common piece of infrastructure that is found in wealthy countries, but lacking in poor countries, is the Internet.

 

According to a report by global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, Internet access drives 3.4 percent of GDP in developed nations, but only 1.9 percent on average in poor, developing countries.

 

VoIP

 

Historically, things got worse for most people in poor nations when wealthy, Western capitalists “invested” in their country — even after the fall of colonialism in the mid-to-late 20th century. Local labor and resources were often exploited, corrupt governments were paid to turn their heads to egregious abuses and corporate behemoths made fabulous fortunes at the expense of the people who lived there.

 

But the rich, ambitious capitalists of the new century may be able to right old wrongs — and, yes, make a lot of money in the process.

 

The new capitalists who are seeing dollar signs in India, Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa will create wealth not by taking diamonds or oil or rubber out of the land until nothing is left, but by building the infrastructure to connect local populations via the Internet.

 

Yes, there is money to be made for the ambitious, well-resourced entrepreneurs who take such a risk — but instead of a decimated environment and an unstable social and political landscape, their footprints will be VoIP, Wikipedia and search engines. They will take away bags of money, yes, but they’ll leave behind the single most important driver for lifting people out of poverty — Internet connectivity and a stake in the Digital Age.

 

In short, the digital capitalists will do well by doing good.

 

VoIP

 

Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook fame recently told the Mobile World Congress that if everyone in the world’s emerging markets could just be connected, 100 million jobs would be created and poverty would be dealt a blow unlike any other in history.

 

It appears to be starting already — and the biggest names in the digital world are leading the charge.

 

Google’s Project Loon aims to deliver Internet connectivity with air balloons in remote, isolated areas. Internet.org is a project in which Facebook paired with several mobile providers to make the Internet affordable to the two-thirds of the world’s population who remain unconnected.

 

The Internet isn’t just about viral videos, Buzzfeed or even doing business. It’s about basic communication, dissemination of knowledge, the sharing of resources and overall quality-of-life services such as 911. In its official blog, the Consumer Electronics Association referenced a 2010 interview with Bill Gates in pointing out that for developing countries, decent health care is often available in places where people have access to mobile phones and the Internet and lacking where they don’t.

 

VoIP

 

A second McKinsey report states that while 16 percent of Africa’s 1 billion residents are currently online, that number will soon change — and rapidly. The arrival of both the Internet and low-cost, Internet capable phones are poised to transform a continent. It speculates that Africa’s “iGDP” will grow to at least 5 or 6 percent, putting it on par with the leading nations in the world. It expects private consumption to jump 13 percent with the arrival of 300 million new smartphones and a doubling of PC, laptop and tablet use.

 

This, the report speculates, will lead to urbanization, rising incomes, economic growth and a new generation of global, tech-savvy Africans whose lives will represent the first break from an unbearably long string of poverty, dependence and hopelessness.

 

There are worse ways to make a profit.

 

In the words of Dr. Hamadoun Touré, secretary-general of the International Telecommunication Union, “for 50 years of independence, in Africa, our development agenda was based on three words: health, assistance and charity. And it did not work. And if you try something for 50 years and it doesn’t work, for God’s sake, you try something else. I am saying, this is business … There’s nothing wrong with making profits.”

 

Like the unscrupulous colonialists of old, a new generation of ambitious, cunning capitalists once again have their eyes fixed on vast fortunes to be had in the poorest places on the planet. But unlike King Leopold of Belgium — who brutalized the Congo and its unfortunate inhabitants in an unquenchable thirst for rubber-fueled wealth — the new capitalists will both earn and build wealth at the same time.

 

Their product, after all, is the very thing separates rich countries from poor countries. They will undoubtedly exit wealthier than when they arrived. But they will leave something far more valuable behind — the Internet and mobile connectivity, which will allow the inhabitants of these developing countries to become the next generation of entrepreneurs. If the interests of both parties are truly joined, everyone can profit — and Ben Franklin can smile.