Across the digitaldivide

In the ThirdWorld, most people don't have access to a telephone, let alone a PC. What can bedone to bridge the gap between the information haves and have nots?
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The Independent Online

When centre-left leaders from both sides of theAtlantic gathered in Florence recently for a futuristic summit, it was PresidentClinton who came out with the neatest suggestion for narrowing the growing gapbetween rich and poor: "Get more [mobile] phones and computers into the hands ofsmart people in the Third World."

When centre-left leaders from both sides of theAtlantic gathered in Florence recently for a futuristic summit, it was PresidentClinton who came out with the neatest suggestion for narrowing the growing gapbetween rich and poor: "Get more [mobile] phones and computers into the hands ofsmart people in the Third World."

Ever since the Internet was invented therehas been no shortage of people eager to teach the world to surf in perfectharmony. There is a widespread belief that the digital revolution has massivepotential for developing countries and could even enable some of them to skipseveral stages of development to catch up with the prosperous West. In short,they can go direct from dirt tracks to the information superhighway.

Intheory, the Internet is a global network with the technological capacity tocreate a true global village. In reality, most inhabitants of the Southernhemisphere have about as much chance of venturing into cyberspace as they have offlying to the moon. Far from engendering an all-inclusive global informationsociety, the highly uneven spread of the Internet is deepening the divide betweenthe information rich and poor.

James Wolfensohn, president of the World Bank,issued the following warning in that body's last annual development report: "Inour enthusiasm for the information superhighway, we must not forget the villagesand slums without telephones, electricity or safe water, the primary schoolswithout pencils, papers or books. For the poor, the promise of the newinformation age can seem as remote as a distant star."

What has been calledthe "digital divide" will not be addressed by compassionate rhetoric from FirstWorld statesmen, though. It will take a gargantuan investment in informationtechnology across the developing world, coupled with an equally massive educationprogramme to overcome the cultural obstacles.

There is a gathering movementin some undeveloped countries to get the industrialised nations to tax theircitizens' access to the Net. The money would then be used to "wire" the rest ofthe world. This proposal has not met with a warm response anywhere in the West,although the issue of international inequalities in access to the World Wide Webdid surface at last week's two-day summit at the Paris headquarters of Unescoinvolving representative from more than 60 countries.

Everyone concerned withthis issue agrees that the first problem to be addressed is phones - or,rather, the dire shortage of this basic communication tool in many parts of theplanet. As the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, remarked recently; "Half theworld's population has never even made or received a telephone call."

Africa,the poorest continent on the planet, is the least connected. Indeed, there aremore telephones in Tokyo than in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa, where fewerthan one in three people have a phone. Almost four-fifths of Africans who are onthe Internet reside in relatively prosperous South Africa.

Some havesuggested that countries with little or no telecommunications infrastructurecould actually be at an advantage as the digital revolution unfolds because theywon't have to install an old system in order to install the new one. They caneven miss out expensive land lines, and go straight to wireless phones (which iswhat Bill Clinton had in mind).

Gerry McGovern, managing director of Nua Ltd,a Dublin-based Internet consultancy that tracks computer trends across the globe,has little time for such perverse logic. "That's all well and good," he wrote inhis book The Caring Economy, "but maybe the reason there is none is because nonecould be afforded in the first place and the new-fangled one cannot be affordedeither."

Paula Uimonen, of the United Nations Research Institute for SocialDevelopment, has warned in a paper: "Unless these problems of infrastructure aresolved in an imaginative and sustainable way, there is little point inmaintaining illusions about the widespread use of the Internet in developingcountries."

Her findings were published more than two years ago. Tragically,there has been little change in the intervening period. As Uimonen noted,developing telecommunications infrastructure has, understandably, not been highon the agenda of the poorest developing countries struggling to provide basichealth and education services for their citizens.

Telecoms are, however,swiftly moving up the political agenda in many parts of the Third World. In thejubilant aftermath of his recent election victory, India's Prime Minister, AtalBihari Vajpayee, promised to restructure the telecommunications industry toprovide world-class telephone services at reasonable cost throughout the country.

Other developing countries are doing even more to kit out their citizens forthe computer-driven global knowledge economy. South Korea's President Kim DaeSung recently inaugurated his very own information revolution, called "CyberKorea 21". South Koreans are to be offered computers at cut-rate prices in anexperimental project which aims to more than double the number of PCs in theircountry from seven million to 16 million in three years.

At present, justover six per cent of South Korea's population are Internet users. "Compared withthe United States and other advanced countries, our PC penetration rate is stilllow," commented Lee Sang Yup, a project planner at the information andcommunication ministry in Seoul. "This project is unprecedented in the world. Ifit bears fruit, many developing nations will follow suit."

Success is farfrom certain. The major PC producers in the region, such as Samsung, have refusedto back the project, forcing the government to cobble together deals with a dozenrelatively minor suppliers. Even they have struggled to keep prices low since therecent earthquake in Taiwan sent microchip prices surging. In cyberspace, thebest laid plans of ambitious government technocrats often go awry.

Even ifSouth Korea's plan succeeds, it won't offer a solution to the world's poorestcountries. "Most people in the Third World will never be able to afford their ownPCs and many countries will not be able to invest in the infrastructure ortraining required," argues Paula Uimonen, who advocated in her UN report that thefocus should switch from individual to community access.

That is one way inwhich the Blair government is attempting to bridge Britain's own digital divide.A major advance for the strategy was hailed recently when the country's maintelephone companies agreed to cut prices for Internet access to libraries,citizens advice bureaux and further education colleges.

Similar initiativesare taking place in a number of developing countries through, for example, localpost offices or commercially run cybercafes. In far flung parts of rural Peru,where the postal service is highly infrequent, e-mail messages are printed outand distributed to the recipients.

But that hardly puts poor Peruvians on apar with cyber-savvy citizens of the First World. Nor does it offer them any realstake in the new information society. And, as Nelson Mandela told the Telecom 95convention in Geneva: "If we cannot ensure that this global revolution creates aworld-wide information society in which everyone has a stake and can play a part,then it will not have been a revolution at all."