UNDP to Latvia: Go global

  • 2000-02-17
  • By Blake Lambert
RIGA - The population is shrinking and the unemployment rate is increasing, but Latvia must embrace globalization, according to a United Nations Development Program report.

The 1999 Human Development report, released on Feb. 14, was the fifth from the UNDP, focusing on ideas such as innovation, education, information technology, the Internet, and electronic commerce.

"Globalization is not really a question of choice," said President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, who was praised by UNDP representative Jan Sand Sorensen for demonstrating an interest in the report.

"It takes place now and will take place in the future."

Vike-Freiberga said Latvia has to adjust to this state of change and cannot be stampeded by the pace of innovation.

The report's chief editor, Talis Tisenkopfs, defined globalization as the emerging trend after the fall of the Berlin Wall: It is defined by democracy, liberalism, free markets, and the free flow of information.

Tisenkopfs said there are great opportunities and risks with this emerging trend, a thought that was echoed by Sorensen.

"Globalization represents an enormous force for the dynamic transformation of society," he said.

"It also threatens to create divisions between those that are connected . . . and those that are left out."

The Human Development report strongly supported Sorensen's observations as only two of Latvia's 26 communities do not have Internet access: Balvi and Ludza in the Latgale region.

Not coincidentally, Latgale's unemployment rate stood at 21 percent in May 1999. People there have the lowest household income per month.

While slightly more than three percent of people in the country are Internet users, the national unemployment rate hovers around 10 percent. Estonia, by comparison, has 88,000 Internet users, 6.3 percent of its population.

Latvia's unemployment rate has increased by 4 percent since 1996, but it jumped by 6 percent in Latgale and 5 percent in Kurzeme.

Meanwhile, about 280,000 people own cell phones in Latvia or 11.5 percent of the population, but more than 160,000 are looking for work.

Yet cell phone usage is growing rapidly in Latvia as nearly twice as many people are getting phones each year.

Tisenkopfs said it is important to make technology available to people, to make them democratic, which will allow people to improve the quality of their lives and allow them to participate in the development of society.

He said the monopoly of Lattelelekom, the phone provider, reduces people's access to these technologies.

"Latvia should use the opportunities given by the world and this will support the development of capitalism that allows for the betterment of all people," said Tisenkopfs.

According to the UNDP's statistics, that development of capitalism has not been widespread.

Riga's per capita Gross Domestic Product in 1997, 1,810 lats ($3,057), was more than twice that of Vidzeme, Zemgale, and Latgale.

Meanwhile, Latvia's population has declined rapidly since it regained its independence in 1991.

By 1998, there were about 230,000 less people than 1991: a decrease of 8.6 percent.

Vike-Freiberga, amid talk of strategic economic plans and the importance of taking advantage of technology, recognized the country is still in transition to a free-market democracy.

"We, as a state, still have a lot of work to do."