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Neither dust nor power cuts deter Mali's plans to go high-tech

With the help of Western donors, this struggling corner of the third world is going high-tech. One focus in the new drive to streamline the Malian government includes a limited attempt to put the country on computer. For many years now, the government has relied on a single large system in the Ministry of Planning to do much of its computer work.

The budget, the payroll, and the tax calculations are all done on the same aging machine. There are perhaps another 80 desk-top computers distributed throughout the rest of the administration.

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But over the next few years, with equipment provided by France, the United States, and the World Bank, the Malians hope to do more and more work on computer.

Several hurdles remain. Ask Kalilou Diakit'e, chief of data processing at the Ministry of Planing, just how many computer experts there are in Mali. ``In the whole administration? In public service? Oh, let's say about 20 managers,'' he estimates. ``We really need people.''

Beyond a serious shortage of qualified technical people, there is also the problem of adapting the slow and awkward bureaucratic structure already in place to the computer age.

Raw data and results from the field for the computers to analyze are often wildly inaccurate, according to Western aid workers. The computer results are no better.

``We're trying to sensitize people to show them that what you put in the computer is what it will give you as a result, says Mr. Diakit'e.

Before putting its employee payroll on computer, for example, the government has had to check it to eliminate identification numbers that appeared twice, as well as ID numbers of people who weren't actually employed.

Computers in Mali must operate with dust that fills Bamako's streets. And, the electricity is not always reliable, although most machines are equipped to handle power cuts.

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Finaly, Malians are confronted with the problem that occurs all over the world when people and computers first meet -- a rapid heartbeat, sweaty palms, glazed eyes.

``If it exists in developed countries, it's the same thing here,'' says Diakit'e with a broad smile. ``People are scared of the machine.''

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