Bringing the Digital Divide

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Installing computers and connections in underdeveloped communities is only part of what is needed to put information and communications technology to use for socio-economic development. An understanding of grassroots realities, pooling of resources, and a favorable regulatory system are among the many elements necessary in an effective approach to the digital divide.

Information and communications technology (ICT) is a key weapon in the war against world poverty. When used effectively, it offers huge potential to empower people in developing countries and disadvantaged communities to overcome development obstacles, address the most important social problems they face, and strengthen communities, democratic institutions, a free press, and local economies. Yet a digital divide separates those who can access and use ICT to gain these benefits, and those who do not have access to technology or can not use it for one reason or another. There are a wide range of projects underway aimed at bringing ICT to people in developing countries. But in order for ICT to have a real impact on people's lives, it is crucial that development efforts go beyond computers and connections to ensure that people have real access to ICT so they can use it effectively to improve their lives.

The digital divide between countries is usually measured in terms of the number of telephones, computers, and Internet users. Between groups of people within countries, it is usually measured in terms of race, gender, age, disability, location, and income. It is difficult to gain an overall understanding of the digital divide, the proposed solutions, and what is having a real impact, when there are multiple definitions of the problem, conflicting views on whether it is getting better or worse, and various opinions on the key factors affecting it.

The digital divide is growing around the world, despite the fact that all countries and all groups within countries, even the poorest, are increasing their access to and use of ICT. This is because people in ICT "have" countries and groups are increasing their access and use at an exponential rate. At the same time, ICT "have-nots" are increasingly excluded from jobs, participation in government processes, and public discourse on the issues that affect their lives, leaving them politically and economically powerless. Countries and communities face the threat of being left further behind if they do not address the growing digital divides. However, the infusion of ICT can intensify existing disparities. ICT alone is not enough to solve long-standing imbalances and can make inequalities worse if not applied wisely.

The digital divide is a complex problem, presenting both practical and policy challenges. It is also apparent that solutions that work in developed countries can not simply be transplanted to developing country environments: solutions must be based on an understanding of local needs and conditions.

Governments can play a fundamental role in creating an environment that will foster technology use and encourage investment in ICT infrastructure, development, and a skilled workforce. Government action is also important in spreading the benefits of technology throughout society, and governments have the power and mandate to balance the needs of their citizens for long-term economic growth and social prosperity. However, translating a vision into practical steps that fit the local context is not a simple matter. Leaders need to have a realistic appreciation for what ICT can-and cannot- do for their countries and communities, and they must lead effectively and bolster public confidence in the path they take.

Overall, a pooling of resources and experiences is needed. Dealing with the digital divide is beyond the scope of any single initiative. While it is important for organizations doing community ICT projects to meet the needs of their clients as comprehensively as possible, the issues at stake in international and domestic digital divides are huge, and organizations should cooperate to tackle problems collaboratively. Private sector programs and philanthropic efforts are vital too, although there is room for improvement.

Source: Global Issues. An Electronic Journal of

the US Department of State. 2003.

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