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Digital opportunities for development?
Monday, 24 August 2009 23:38

Does the rise of information and communications technology (ICT) and especially the Internet create “digital opportunities” for fast-tracking development?  Can ICT give developing countries the chance to leapfrog some of the long and painful stages of development that other countries had to go through?


Or does it create a “digital divide” with the poor falling even further behind the rich?  How can the power of ICT be harnessed to promote sustainable growth, advance social justice and strengthen democratic governance?  These issues have occupied the minds of development policy makers and practitioners for a number of years now through initiatives like the G8’s Digital Opportunities Task Force (DOT Force) and the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), a pair of UN conferences held in 2003 and 2005.


Let’s first have a look at the impact of ICT and the Internet in the global economy in which developing countries participate.  ICT can provide new and more efficient methods of production, bring previously unattainable markets within the reach of local producers, improve the delivery of government services, and increase access to basic social goods and services.  There has also been a revolution in learning and knowledge sharing, and global information flows.  Citizens and communities have also been empowered in new ways that redefine governance.  Overall, ICT has created substantial new forms of economic growth and social development.




And while ICT has created enormous new opportunities, it is also posing equally daunting challenges.  Access to, and effective use of ICT and its innovations are critical to poverty reduction, increased social inclusion and the creation of a better life for all.  More fundamentally, access to knowledge and information is a prerequisite for modern human development.  Regrettably access to these "digital opportunities" is extremely uneven, in ways that both reflect and exacerbate existing inequalities.


It is not surprising that there is a "digital divide", the difference between the “have” and “have-nots”, which is often associated with imbalances in access to physical infrastructure, such as computers and Internet, or even conventional communication infrastructure, such as fixed telephone lines. Digital divides can exist between developed and developing countries, or within a country.  After all, one third of the world population has never made a telephone call. Seventy percent of the world's poor live in rural and remote areas, where access to ICT, is often scarce. Most of the information exchanged over global networks such as the Internet is in English, the language of less than ten percent of the world's population.


While large numbers of the poor are missing out on digital opportunities, in reality ICT can make a major contribution to poverty reduction and economic development more generally.  Some examples are greater availability of health and reproductive information, training of medical personnel and teachers, giving opportunity and voice to women, expanding access to education and training.  More generally, ICT can create new economic opportunities that lift individuals, communities and nations out of poverty.


The DOT Force identified the following areas for harnessing the potential for ICT for development:

.  strengthening the readiness for e-development through the national e-strategies and increased global ICT policy participation;

.  pro-competitive policies in the communications sector and a regulatory framework that will support such competition (too often state monopolies charge exorbitant prices).

.  increasing access and connectivity through community access and improved network connectivity;

.  developing skills for the information economy through initiatives to support technical training, entrepreneurship skills and e-literacy;

.  fostering local content and applications through the generation of local content and the development of ICT tools to combat HIV/AIDS and other communicable diseases.


At the WSIS, world leaders declared their “common desire and commitment to build a people-centred, inclusive and development-oriented Information Society, where everyone can create, access, utilize and share information and knowledge, enabling individuals, communities and peoples to achieve their full potential in promoting their sustainable development and improving their quality of life, premised on the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations and respecting fully and upholding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights”.


They also noted that:


“All stakeholders have an important role to play in the Information Society, especially through partnerships:

.  Governments have a leading role in developing and implementing comprehensive, forward looking and sustainable national e-strategies. The private sector and civil society, in dialogue with governments, have an important consultative role to play in devising national e-strategies.

.  The commitment of the private sector is important in developing and diffusing ICTs, for infrastructure, content and applications. The private sector is not only a market player but also plays a role in a wider sustainable development context.

.  The commitment and involvement of civil society is equally important in creating an equitable Information Society, and in implementing ICT-related initiatives for development.

.  International and regional institutions, including international financial institutions, have a key role in integrating the use of ICTs in the development process and making available necessary resources for building the Information Society and for the evaluation of the progress made.”


They also called “upon the international community to promote the transfer of technology on mutually agreed terms, including ICTs, to adopt policies and programmes with a view to assisting developing countries to take advantage of technology in their pursuit of development through, inter alia, technical cooperation and the building of scientific and technological capacity in our efforts to bridge the digital and development divides.”


They also welcomed “the Digital Solidarity Fund (DSF) established in Geneva as an innovative financial mechanism of a voluntary nature open to interested stakeholders with the objective of transforming the digital divide into digital opportunities for the developing world by focusing mainly on specific and urgent needs at the local level and seeking new voluntary sources of “solidarity” finance. The DSF will complement existing mechanisms for funding the Information Society, which should continue to be fully utilized to fund the growth of new ICT infrastructure and services.”


So after this high-falutin' stuff, how are we doing?


In its publication “Measuring the Information Society: The ICT Development Index”, the International Telecommunications Union attempts to measure trends in the digital divide which they summarise in the following way.  For all groups of countries, the ICT Development Index increased between 2002 and 2007.  The digital divide continues to persist, with its magnitude remaining large between the “high” and “low” group, and between the “high” and “medium” group (1).  However, the digital divide is shrinking, although by a very low margin.  The digital divide between those countries that have high ICT levels and those that have lower ICT levels decreased.  This may be due to an increase in levels of penetration of mobile cellular phones, which is increasing in most developing countries.


ICT cannot of course act as a panacea for all development problems, but by dramatically improving communication and exchange of information, it can create powerful social and economic networks, which in turn provide the basis for major advances in development.  Take a look at the following examples of how ICT can revolutionize development.  Community radio stations in Africa are providing vital information (acquired through the Internet) on weather disaster warnings, health and nutrition, and HIV/AIDS prevention.  Cellular phones are revolutionizing banking the Philippines.  In Bolivia, Internet centres have been set up to provide farmers with timely information on crops, production and processing, as well as policies and regulations.





Digital Opportunities for All: Meeting the Challenge.  Report of the Digital Opportunity Task Force (DOT Force) including a proposal for a Genoa Plan of Action.



World Summit on the Information Society



Measuring the Information Society: The ICT Development Index



(1)  For the purposes of measuring the digital divide, the following publication, Measuring the Information Society: The ICT Development Index, classifies countries four groups based on their scores on the ICT Development Index:


“High (IDI values above 5.29): Economies included in this group have high level of ICT access and use and high ICT skills. The 33 economies accounted for 15 per cent of the world’s population in 2007 and included twenty-one European countries, ten Asia & Pacific economies, as well as Canada, and the United States.

Upper (IDI values between 3.41 and 5.25): Economies included in this category are those that have achieved an elevated level of access to and use of ICTs, and ICT skills, for a majority of their inhabitants. This group includes countries from different regions such as Mauritius from Africa, nine countries from Eastern Europe, three countries from South-Eastern Asia, two countries from the Caribbean, four countries from Latin America and seven countries from Western Asia.

In total, they accounted for almost 780 million people. The economies included in both this group and in the high” group accounted for more than 27 per cent of the total population in 2007.

Medium (IDI values between 2.05 and 3.34): This group includes economies that account for more than one-third of the total population (37 per cent or 2.4 billion inhabitants). Countries like China and Indonesia are included in this group, both of which have large populations. A number of Northern African countries, four Sub-Saharan African countries as well as the rest of the Western Asian nations (i.e. those that are not in the “upper” group) are included in this group.

Low (IDI values between 0.82 and 2.03): The remaining one-third of the world’s inhabitants can be found in this group (36 per cent or 2.3 billion people). Except for two countries from Latin America and the Caribbean (Nicaragua and Haiti), most of the Southern-Asian countries are classified under this group along with most of the Sub-Saharan African countries. South-Eastern Asian countries such as Myanmar, Cambodia, and Lao P.D.R are also in this group. This group reflects countries with low level of ICT access, usage and skills.”


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