This digital age will benefit poor countries only if we truly care

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The Independent Online

The "digital divide" phrase is one with which we are all familiar - and the implication is that if this gulf could somehow miraculously be bridged, many of the development issues facing the world would be solved.

The "digital divide" phrase is one with which we are all familiar - and the implication is that if this gulf could somehow miraculously be bridged, many of the development issues facing the world would be solved.

There is no doubt technology can do many things but lest we lose perspective, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan tells us that "visions of a global-based economy and universal electronic commerce characterised by the 'death of distance' must be tempered by the reality that half of the world's population has never made a telephone call, much less accessed the internet."

The Digital Opportunity Task Force reminds us 70 per cent of the world's poor live in rural and remote areas where access to information and communication technologies, even to a telephone, is scarce. Most of the information exchanged over the internet is in English, the language of less than 10 per cent of the world's population.

These statistics help us understand the problems associated with bridging this famous divide. The statistics are a reflection of poverty statistics as well as a host of other indicators that signal the need for human development. One such obvious indicator is illiteracy. Is it not strange that we talk glibly about the "digital divide" but the phrase "literacy divide" has never entered popular use in the same way? Microsoft founder Bill Gates probably overstates the case when he says poor people need medicine, not computers - but we take his point nevertheless.

This is not to suggest the work being done to bridge the gap is futile. What it does mean is that work has to be done in a context that recognises local realities and respects local priorities. Not only that, but it harnesses its efforts to those of the development objectives in such a way that it becomes a key component of them. Creating digital opportunities should not be something that comes after addressing the core development issues but rather works with them.

We do know, of course, that some information and communication technologies are already making a dramatic difference in some places. Mobile telephones are transforming many people's quality of life. Digital radio stations reach a wide public, play a role in education and enhance public understanding of democratic processes and other important issues.

Satellite television enormously expands the choices of people previously limited to state-run broadcasts only. Even the Open University has made use of the technology to close the divide for disabled students, for it is not only geography that creates division. These and other moves forward can be acknowledged without removing our attention from the fact that the digital divide is an intractable part of a much broader and more intractable development divide. It might be a necessary step when it comes to improving development but it is certainly not a sufficient step.

It has been said that in our information-rich world it is not lack of knowledge that is a problem in these matters; rather it is a lack of concern - for only if we are truly concerned will action flow. There lies the rub.

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