Author:Smith, Pamela Ann

Governments around the world are becoming increasingly concerned about what will happen on the night of 31 December, 1999. While many experts are still cautioning against any panic reactions, there is widespread agreement that many computer systems and networks around the world could fail to recognise correctly the change of date to 1 January 2000.

Vital services, such as security and defence, telecommunications, transport, health and food supplies could be affected, along with a country's economy, foreign trade, banks and businesses.

The developing countries, particularly in the Middle East, Africa and Latin America, are deemed to be especially vulnerable to disruptions, officials at the World Bank, the United Nations and other international organisations say. "People around the world could be united by a collective information black-out as computers from Andorra to Zimbabwe travel back in time 100 years," the World Bank wrote in its fortnightly publication, World Bank News, in March.

"I cannot emphasise enough how serious the repercussions could be on developing countries' economic activities," noted the Bank's Chief Information Officer, Mohamed Muhsin. "Governments and businesses that have not done so need to begin taking the steps to update their information systems."

The Year 2000, or Y2K, problem -- also known as the "Millennium Bug" -- stems from the fact that many computer programmes and microchips embedded in everything from calculators to mobile phones allow only the last two digits of the calendar year to be recognised. As a result, they cannot distinguish between the year 1900 and the year 2000. Computer systems and networks may reject entries or miscalculate the time between the two dates, with unpredictable and, most probably, expensive consequences.

"On 1 January 2000, not only computers but also other electronic devices and equipment may not function properly," the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) warns visitors to its web site on the problem ( "Power supply, transportation, banking, communications and health care services might be negatively affected." The problem, it adds, "is real and will affect organisations in both developing and developed countries."

The US, along with the UK, was one of the first to recognise the global implications, as well as the potentially negative consequences to government and business operations at home. Both government and business leaders have been...

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