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Clicking the 'delete button' on hunger

In the early 21st century - so the thinking goes - there will be digital haves and have-nots.

The haves will get ahead in the information age because they have the money and education to use laptops, cell phones, and the Internet. The have-nots are doomed because they won't have access to any of these things.

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It's the "digital divide." And John Chambers, chief executive officer of Cisco Systems, wants to cross it.

So his fast-charging, Internet firm has joined with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) to eradicate extreme poverty in developing nations.

Some 1.3 billion people earn less than $1 a day. An estimated 880 million lack access to adequate food.

On Oct. 9, Cisco and UNDP will call attention to the problem with an international benefit called "Net Aid."

Music bands at three venues - Giants Stadium in New Jersey, the Opera House in Geneva, and Wembley Stadium in London - will perform and be broadcast on television and the Internet. At one point, artists in all three locations will play simultaneously.

Besides providing the initial funding for the concert, Cisco is also building a UNDP Web site, which will not only highlight the plight of the world's poorest but also show ways individuals and businesses can help.

Recently, the Monitor interviewed Mr. Chambers by telephone. Here are excerpts:

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Why are you doing this?

To bring the have nots into the future is good for everyone. It makes a whole lot of business come around.

It also reduces conflict. When you do business with people, it's hard to dislike them.

But millions of these folks have never even used a phone, much less the Internet. Why would an Internet company get involved?

The Internet changes everything.... You don't build out an infrastructure for the old world. So why not take it all the way and let everyone participate?

If you don't do that then this digital divide that everyone talks about will get 10 times worse.

How does the Internet change charity?

In essence, it's a much more effective way of giving money and time and expertise.

It allows someone who wants to help to look and see where they can really add value - sending sewing machines to women in Jordan or delivering a plow to people in Africa.

It will also be a way for [the poor] to find out how to farm more effectively.

Should companies get involved in tackling social problems?

Businesses have to realize their primary role is to produce a successful business. But having been one of the most successful companies - some people say the most successful - I think you should give something back.

Where did this social consciousness come from?

Our company was an outgrowth of Stanford University. We've always given very generously to education. My parents ... taught me that the only thing that made a difference was education. [And] it's just plain good business. Employees like to work for a company that works for a higher purpose.

Do you think someday your company will employ someone who's starving today?

What people haven't grasped is that the jobs will go wherever there's a well-educated work force anywhere in the world. Unlike the Industrial Revolution where people had to move the jobs ... the jobs will move to the people.

That means educating the world's least-educated. Is that realistic?

Maybe it's a dream, but remember Cisco has delivered on dreams for the past 12 years. Maybe that 's what attracts us to it....

Two years ago, I couldn't get the majority of CEOs to understand this [Internet-driven revolution]. Now, they get it.

If you think that that's happened in two years in the business world, to think that this will happen in the world in 10 years maybe doesn't look so difficult after all.

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