What is Digital Divide?

The debate on the Digital Divide and how to bridge it took the centre stage in several global forums around the millenium year 2000.

Now everybody from United Nations, G8, World Bank, OECD and single governments to universities, NGO's and community groups are getting in on the act. There will be a World Summit of the Information Society in 2003. The UNDP Human Development Report 2001 will concentrate on Digital Divide, bringing undoubtedly an impressive set of new data and analysis for the global debate.

The stakes are enormous. Most social problems of this magnitude are only debated after the event. The Digital Divide is unusual in the sense that solution is sought in real time, while the revolution itself is unrolled. This seems to be in true nature of the technology involved - the speed at which people in rich countries have adopted Internet is much faster than adoption rates for any previous technologies, like telegraph, radio, TV, fax or video.

The year 2000 was a historic one for the development of the global Internet. It marked the point at which Internet capacity exceeded international telephone circuit capacity for the first time. Worldwide international Internet capacity stand currently at almost 300 Gbps, almost five times greater than the year before.

But the so-called digital revolution has been limited to a small portion of the world population, mostly in the rich countries. More than 80% of people in the world have never heard a dial tone, let alone sent an email or downloaded information from the World Wide Web. This, actually, is the layman's nutshell version of the much talked about Digital Divide. The "info rich" have never been further from the "info poor".

It's Bad Out There
nd It's Getting Worse

There is nothing new in inequalities in the world as such. From one point of view, the Digital Divide is nothing more than a modern version of the ‘Analog Divide’ which has separated rich and poor countries since the invention of telephone. Of course, It is particularly striking that the Internet, which is probably the most cost effective way of transmitting information and sharing knowledge ever invented, should be an area in which inequalities are even greater than in other information technologies, and even income distribution worldwide.

Industrialised countries, with only 15% of the world's population, are home to 88% of all Internet users. Less than 1% of people in South Asia are online even though it is home to one-fifth of the world's population. Finland, with 5 million population, has more active adult Internet users (1.9 m) than India (1.8 m) with a population of a billion people.

The situation is even worse in Africa. With 739 million people, there are only 14 million phone lines. There are only 1 million Internet users on the entire continent (out of whom 0.65 million in South Africa) compared with 16 million in the UK, 6 million in France, or 3.9 million in both Sweden and Brazil. No big mystery in this, even if the connection was available, it is unreachable. In industrialised countries, a month's connection to the Internet costs about one hour's wage. In many African countries a university professor's monthly salary hardly covers the expense of a speedy Internet connection.

But Digital Divide is not only about surfing in the Internet. It's more broadly about unequal possibilities to access and contribute to information, knowledge and networks, as well as to benefit from the development enhancing capabilities of Information and Communication Technologies. Digital Divide has become one of the most visible components of the Development Divide. Digital Divide is about broader socio-economic factors, and insufficient infrastructure, high cost of access, lack of locally created content, and uneven ability to derive economic and social benefits from information-intensive activities.

While Finnish children by rule have their own mobile phones, and market experts wonder at the spectacular growth in the market capitalization of some IT companies, many villages, regions and countries in the developing world are still unable to satisfy their very basic needs in education or health. Some 109 million primary-school-age children (i.e. 22% of them worldwide) were out of school, 885 million adults (age 15 and above) were illiterate, and in developing countries altogether only 4 copies of daily newspapers circulated per 100 people, as opposed to 26 in industrial countries.

The economic and social value of accessing information is significantly higher today than it was twenty years ago. Information is becoming a commodity whose value is determined by all who have access to it. Also considering the potential importance of the Internet as a tool to reduce poverty and stimulate social and economic development, inequalities in physical and economic access to IP networks today have much more dramatic consequences than inequalities in access to telephone twenty years ago.

Gender And Culture
ivide As Well

In fact, it can be said that there is no single Digital Divide. Digital Divides, like social and economic divides, exist between countries, but also within societes. There is one between developed and developing nations, but there is also one between the rich and poor in any country, between blacks, whites and hispano's, between men and women etc etc...

The gender divide is a global feature. In European countries like UK, Germany and France, up to two-thirds of the Internet users are men. In Brazil, men dominate the net with 75%, In China with 93% and Arab countries with 96% share of the users. "I will rank the Internet 'number one challenge', because it brings information and possibilities of education to women," says Gaaisele Yitamben, the leader od a women-empowerment group ASAFE in sub-Sahara Africa.

There is also a language problem. While some 6% of the world population are native English speakers, up to 80% of the publicly accessible websites are in English. As a result, to many people around the globe, much of the Internet is simply inaccessible or only somewhat understandable.

Any program of action to create digital opportunity for all therefore will demand attention to the particular needs of the underdogs here, of the poor and disadvantaged, to issues of gender, to the challenge of assuring broad participation.

From The Marginal
o The Top Of Hype

As the fastest expanding sectors of the rich world economy are information intensive, the risk of fragmented globalization becomes greater. Over the last few years, as the pace of the digital revolution was accelerating, the Digital Divide within and between countries has clearly increased. This has potentially disastrous consequences:

#8226; poor countries (and the poorest people) are being further marginalized, as their access to opportunities for wealth creation is being reduced;
#8226; considerable development opportunities are being missed, as productivity and efficiency gains are not being transmitted from rich to poor countries;
#8226; the digital revolution becomes a potential target for a growing phenomenon of ‘globalization backlash’, as civil society fails to see any positive impact on standards of living and quality of life.

As even Bill Gates himself has pointed out, what deprived people need is not computers but basic things like food, water and medicine. Jubilee 2000 pointed out that for the price of a computer, 2000 children could be vaccinated against six killer diseases. In Sub-Saharan Africa more than half of primary-age children are denied the opportunity of even rudimentary primary education and less than one third make it to secondary school. In India, 61% of adult women are unable to read and write. All this puts technology transfer in a depressive context. "If they are hungry, the poorest people in the world cannot eat lap tops." "Until they drop the debt, these G8 gestures are empty," said Jubilee 2000 UK Director Anna Pettifor during the Okinawa summit, while demonstrators were ceremonially setting fire to a lap top computer.

"You can't eat a lap top, but you can use it to get something to eat," replies a Finnish computer expert Matti P. Pulkkinen, working for IBM. "The hype about IT sector liberating India from backwardness should be taken with more than a pinch of salt," says left politician Sitaram Yechury from India.

An exessive emphasis on Information Technology holds the danger of diverting resources away from the basic economy, which still is the very foundation for IT to take off. Lack of balance here could prove disastrous for a developing country. Says Sitaram Yechury: "The economy in the knowledge society, however radically impacted by IT, has to develop by sternghtening the real brick and mortar fundamentals and cannot afford to be hijacked into the virtual reality of e-brick and e-mortar." "Unfortunately, the mindless and reckless policies of liberalisation...prevent the tapping of the full benefits of IT."

Bridging the Digital Divide will anyhow require actions involving more basic technologies like radio broadcast or postal networks, as well as interventions outside of the field of information and communication technologies. For example, properly functioning customs, postal, transport, banking and insurance systems are a prerequisite to the development of applications such as electronic commerce.

From hardware approach
to social vision

As the famous Alcoholics Anonymous saying goes, admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery. International organisations, governments and private institutions have now started to do this in a larger scale. However, over the last twenty years or so, the inequality of access of poorer countries to information technologies and communications networks has been the focus of a number of studies, analyses and technical assistance programs.

The definition of what separates the ‘haves’ from the ‘have-nots’ of an information society has changed considerably during the two decades gone since the visionary ‘Maitland Report’ was published by the ITU in 1984: from the ‘Missing Link’ approach of the mid-eighties, to the ‘Global Information Infrastructure’ of the mid-nineties, to the Okinawa ‘Digital Divide’ call for action in 2000.

Each of the three attempts have shed a different light on a set of complex and inter-related issues, going from infrastructure development and financing, to regulatory aspects (including convergence), applications (e-health, e-learning, e-commerce, e-government), content creation (involving the use of local languages on the Internet), knowledge creation and sharing, and finally empowerment of local communities, women and younger groups of population.

The accent has moved from an almost strictly ‘hardware’ approach (infrastructure, equipment) approach in the mid-1980s to a progressively greater focus on regulatory and applications aspects in the mid-1990s, and eventually to a more ‘social and societal’ vision of the Digital Divide.

An Agenda
For The Bridge

If we fail to act now the Information Gap risks being widened into an uncrossable gulf that increases global inequality and leaves the poor further behind," said UNDP's Mark Malloch Brown to G-8 leaders in Okinawa. "But if we approach the matter with the same kind of urgency and application as the commercial "dot-com" sector, then we have every chance of building a strong, new wired future that not only includes the world's poor but gives them an unprecedented opportunity to lift themselves out of poverty."

here are so many projects going on from Estonia to East Timor and international processes to build an agenda for bridging the Digital Divide, that it is not possible here to try to sum them up in any meaningful way.

hey all say that as the Digital Divide increases, development policies must move beyond debates between ‘either hospitals and schools’ on one hand, ‘or computers, telephones and Internet connectivity’ on the other.

ike Githogori wa Nyangara-Murage of Nairobi, you could start by preaching the gospel of Linux and teach people that it is the only way for Africa to ever leapfrog its status as an underdeveloped continent. "The free software model makes sense for Africa. It puts Africa and the rest of the world on an equal level," he says.

r you could go by the US "State of The Internet 2000" report, and simply conclude that "the countries and companies of the world must collaborate and standardize guidelines for the Internet industry to avoid costly international disputes and to continue the dissemination of Internet technology to the entire world."

r, like the ITU in a March 2001 report, name "Interconnection Regulation" as the key to bridge the Digital Divide.

more political and powerful effort, the G-8 initiated DOT Force in it's March 2001 draft report, identifies the following much more broad priority areas: 1) Policy, regulatory and network readiness; 2) Connectivity and Access; 3) Human Capital Development, knowledge-creation and sharing; 4) Content and Wealth Creation, including e-commerce, e-government; 5) The structure and governance of international assistance in the information age.

he UNDP HDR will for sure outline an agenda. And how many more there are to come......

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