Spanning the Digital
Divide: Understanding and Tackling the Issues
Published by Bridges.org, South Africa
21 June, 2001
by Madanmohan Rao (firstname.lastname@example.org)
There are literally thousands of initiatives aimed
at tackling the digital divide, but they are bound to fail as long
as they focus on just computers and connections, according to the
recently published report by Bridges.org, a non-profit organization
with offices in the U.S. and South Africa. Digital initiatives also
need to include affordability, local capacity, relevant content and
services, socio-cultural factors, legal and regulatory framework,
economic environment, and political will.
As compared to other analytic and prescriptive
reports focusing on the broader role of ICTs in socio-economic
development, the Bridges.org report is the most detailed and
comprehensive report focusing explicitly on the nature of the
digital divide, quantitative and qualitative measures of the divide,
corporate/donor/NGO approaches to overcoming the divide, project
lessons, and policy alignment recommendations.
ICT disparities usually exacerbate existing
disparities based on location (such as urban-rural), gender,
ethnicity, physical disability, age, and, especially, income level,
and between "rich" and "poor" countries. The digital divide is not
an isolated entity, but a complicated patchwork of varying levels of
ICT access, basic ICT usage, and ICT applications among countries
At a macro level the Bridges report describes the
digital divide as a failure of development initiatives, a failure of
market forces and a failure of governments. Development initiatives
are often top-down and do not involve local partners and the
business community. The private sector has slowly spread technology
to middle income groups, but on the whole they fail to see the
developing world and underserved populations as viable markets that
require targeted products. Governments often tend to the short-term
demands of their constituencies, but do not provide a coherent,
long-term plan for prosperity and effective ICT integration, and a
legal and regulatory framework that foster ICT use.
According to bridges.org, it is critical to
involve the private sector, adapt internationally-accepted policies
to the local context, and connect on-the-ground initiatives with
Dealing with the digital divide is beyond the
scope of any single initiative and technology is not a silver bullet
for the world's problems. It is important for organizations doing
community ICT projects to bring a global perspective and an
entrepreneurial approach, and they must cooperate with like-minded
efforts to tackle the range of problems collaboratively.
The report has copious reference data and case
studies of ICTs projects in action, drawn from sources like the
World Resources Institute, U.S. Internet Council, NetSizer, and NuA
Internet surveys. The report concludes with some of the key elements
necessary for integrating technology into society in an effective,
sustainable way so that people can put technology to use to improve
their lives: what we call "real access" to technology.
I. Measuring the Digital Divide
The infusion of ICT into a developing country
paints the existing landscape of poverty, discrimination, and
division onto the new canvas of technology use. Because ICT can
reward those who know how to use it with increased income and
cultural and political advantages, the resulting digital divide
shows up in increasingly stark contrast. Underneath the apparent
widening and narrowing of the ICT divides, the underlying trend is
that privileged groups acquire and use technology more effectively,
and because the technology benefits them in an exponential way, they
become even more privileged.
Therefore, ICT disparities usually exacerbate
existing disparities based on location (such as urban-rural),
gender, ethnicity, physical disability, age, and, especially, income
level, and between "rich" and "poor" countries.
1. Quantitative measures
Measures of the digital divide exists in number
and cost (absolute and relative) of PCs, phones, Internet hosts, Web
sites, Internet users, residential/organizational/international
Internet bandwidth, technical capacity, and advanced applications
The spread of Internet users among the world's
population is much more unequal than that of the use of other ICT
such as TV or telephones. The inequality of Internet usage is even
bigger than the spread of GDP between the world's rich and poor
The monthly connection cost for the Internet in
much of Africa exceeds the monthly income of a significant portion
of the population. In nearly all developing countries, phone calls
are charged by the minute, and are often extremely expensive.
Additionally, Web pages (and email) are becoming increasing
graphic-heavy and "large" in terms of file size.
The dominance of English, and especially U.S.
content, makes it less useful to other countries. Additionally,
non-English countries produce less local content making the Internet
less relevant to their lives, and less of a tool of self-expression
and local communication.
Advanced uses of ICT such as e-commerce
applications show even greater disparities than in basic access to
computers. E-commerce is dominated by the U.S. and to a lesser
extent some European countries. The U.S. has 64% of all secure
servers in the world; the next highest is the U.K, with only 5.32%,
and the vast majority of countries have less than 0.1% (Netcraft,
January 2001 data).
There is a wealth of real and anecdotal evidence
of the digital divide. The volume of statistics is impressive and
persuasive: In the entire continent of Africa, there are a mere 14
million phone lines -- fewer than in either Manhattan or Tokyo.
Wealthy nations comprise some 16 per cent of the world's population,
but command 90 per cent of Internet host computers. Of all the
Internet users worldwide, 60 per cent reside in North America, where
a mere five per cent of the world's population reside. One in two
Americans is online, compared with only one in 250 Africans. In
Bangladesh a computer costs the equivalent of eight years average
Ethnic and racial divisions in ICT use have been
studied in the U.S. (eg. "Falling through the Net", U.S. Department
of Commerce), but are much less studied outside. Gaps also exist in
adoption by gender, and the sector of disabled individuals show
especially low levels of Internet use. Major cities are far more
likely to have Internet, phone, and PC access than smaller cities
and rural areas. These gaps are even more significant given the fact
that more than 50 percent--and as many as 80 percent--of the
population in poorest countries, live in rural areas.
2. A Deeper Understanding of
Digital Diffusion -- E-Assessments and E-Readiness
The "number of users" online statistic is only a
small part of the "digital divide". For practical reasons, current
statistics focus on the raw numbers of PCs or numbers of people
using a technology. They do not measure well how well people are
using the technology, and whether the impact is positive or negative
for themselves and their communities for business, educational,
governance and social uses.
While the current set of statistics can only
provide rough estimates of how technology is used between countries
and socio-economic groups, more than enough information is known to
show that these divisions exist (many are growing) to spur reasoned
action. The problem is that such statistics do not provide a clear
plan of action. E-readiness assessment, combined with conventional
"digital divide" statistics could provide this action plan.
A deeper understanding of ICT use can be gained
from the wealth of "e-readiness" assessments around the world. The
e-readiness assessments seek to gauge how ready a country is to
participate in the information economy or information society. In
the process, the assessments draw upon many of the statistics used
above as well as many more, including use of computers in schools
and in healthcare. Each assessment gauges "readiness" differently,
but a number of conclusions can be drawn:
E-assessments ask some of the vital questions that
are missing in most digital divide reports -- namely, how is the
technology used in everyday life? Where and how often is the
technology used in schools, businesses (internal technology and
e-commerce), government (internally and e-government), and in health
care? Unfortunately, e-assessments do not generally discuss
socio-economic divisions in a society.
Serious policy questions thus arise from
quantitative and qualitative assessments of the digital divide. Will
digital divisions close or merely narrow? Will LDCs ever catch up?
While other developing countries stay in place or fall more behind?
II. Tackling the Digital Divide
Each country and group has a unique profile for
how technology is used, or not. E-readiness assessments are a
valuable tool with which to gain informed, region-specific
understanding, and to develop an action plan. Generally, there are
three main approaches to the problems of the digital divide: studies
and recommendations, on-the-ground efforts, and policy reform.
1. Studies and Recommendations
Governments, businesses, individuals, and
organizations have studied the issues at stake in the digital divide
and drafted a range of valuable reports -- from statistical analysis
to in-depth case studies. Major international initiatives such as
the G8's Digital Opportunity Task Force (DOT Force) have brought
together leaders and decision-makers from around the world for a
consultation process to determine the key factors and how to address
them. Unfortunately, there is significant duplication of effort in
these studies and recommendations, and too few of the suggestions
are followed up in practice. There is a lot of talk, but not enough
E-readiness assessments include detailed case
studies and questionnaire based method such as the Center for
International Development (CID) at Harvard's "Readiness for the
Networked World" survey, to statistical methods such as The
Economist Intelligence Unit's "E-Business Readiness" assessments. A
reasonably comprehensive list of e-readiness organizations and
surveys is available online at
A number of national governments have launched
digital divide initiatives. Japan has promised a total of US$ 15
billion over five years in aid towards bridging international
digital divide, and pushed other governments to focus on the digital
divide at the G8 summit in July 2000.
Other digital divide bodies include the United
Nation's ICT Task, the Global Business Dialogue on E-Commerce's
Digital Bridges program (digitalbridges.gbde.org), UNDP, Andersen
Consulting, and the Markle Foundation's "opportunITy initiative"
Digital divide policies and projects are often
included as part of wider action plans to harness ICT to benefit
economies and societies. The archetypal example is the EU's
"e-Europe" plan, which has the stated goals of creating a digitally
literate Europe. The U.K. government's initiatives include two
special cabinet posts known as the "e-Minister" and
2. On-the-ground Efforts to
Bridge the Digital Divide
Numerous on-the-ground initiatives are working to
provide technology access and help put technology to use in
underserved populations. There are an enormous number of efforts,
ranging from telecentres to telemedicine to training to innovative
business applications, and they are driven by the smallest NGO in
Myanmar, Burma to the largest multinational corporation, such as
Hewlett Packard's US$1 billion "E-Inclusion" initiative.
Many initiatives address specific aspects of the
range of issues, but too often they neglect related factors that
limit their success. For example, too many telecentres providing
computers and connections in rural locations do not become
self-sustaining because local people do not use their services --
often they have failed to address the role of the centre in the
local economy or the need for locally relevant content.
Initiatives focusing on specific aspects of the
digital divide include national telecommunications infrastructure
projects (such as Africa ONE), training programmes, telecentres
(Peruvian Telecentre Franchises Project), school computer and
distance education projects (Panama's Proyecto de Informática
Educativa), online information resources (South Africa's Soul City
media site covering health and employment issues), e-government
initiatives (Andhra Pradesh's online land registry record services),
e-commerce ventures (Costa Rica's Pura Vida Project for using online
coffee sales to support street children programmes), healthcare
(SatelLife's HealthNet communication network), agriculture (village
info-shops in Pondicherry for education and rural needs), and rural
microfinance and wireless communication (GrameenPhone in
3. Policy and Digital Divides
National governments can play a fundamental role
in creating an environment that will foster technology use and
encourage national and international investment in ICT
infrastructure, development, and a skilled workforce. These include
telecommunications privatisation, standards setting, consumer
protection, and government usage of ICT.
According to the Bridges.org report, the G8's DOT
Force initiative is by far the largest, most clearly and
comprehensively targeted at the digital divide, and most likely to
impact on government policy.
Economic growth and social equity are both needed
to bridge international and domestic digital divides. However, no
consensus exists on exactly what policies are needed for either of
III. Findings, Exemplars, Lessons, and
The current debate surrounding ICT policy and
digital divides involves as least six basic goals: ICT sector growth
(eg. World Bank), policies specifically targeted for e-commerce (eg
, APEC steering group), online rights (eg. GILC), worker's rights,
ICT equity (Tele-centros), and a perspective focusing on basic
Many African and Middle Eastern countries seem to
be far behind in policies needed to bridge international and
domestic digital divides. There are a number of African countries
with no registrar for their top-level country codes. The majority of
countries with laws on electronic authentication have not yet
developed detailed standards, although a number are working on them.
At the same time, a number of projects geared for
the developing world offer promising new technologies and
adaptations. India's "Simputer" and Brazil's "Volkscomputer" are
often cited examples of locally produced, locally appropriate
technologies that fit the needs and budgets of the developing world.
Two developed world projects are also seeking to produce new
"developing market" technologies -- the MIT Media Lab, and HP's 1
Billion dollar E-Inclusion project. On the software side, India is
the prime example of a country that has succeeded in developing a
globally competitive IT sector -- though the replicability of their
success may be doubtful for other countries.
New emerging initiatives are drawing from existing
resources on digital divide policy which include e-assessments,
model laws (such as as UNCITRAL's Model Law on Electronic Commerce),
position papers, and private sector consultations.
While there are a large number of ground-level
"digital divide" initiatives, their are far fewer organizations and
initiatives devoted to the long term policy issues of digital
divides. There is a significant push for e-commerce policy, but that
is only one aspect of digital divides -- economic growth in the ICT
sector and ICT-enabled companies.
The report provides a useful taxonomy of these
initiatives based on nature of sponsor: large IT corporates,
non-profit foundations, aggregators of contributors (eg. Apple
computers for schools), and donated labour costs. There also
initiatives which the Open Society Institute describes as ".corgs"
-- companies who explicitly combine social goals with business
revenue. Examples include Viatru the Pura Vida project and PeopLINK.
Initiatives can better empower and engage local
community members if they are supported by a "local champion" -- a
person or organization rooted in the community who spearheads put of
the project and coordinates with other communities members. The
champion can foster community buy-in and thus improve the project's
Digital divide programmes are operated by
organizations ranging from the smallest NGO to the largest
multinational corporation. Countless small NGOs such as Starfish and
the Geekcorps, are matched by comparatively large NGOs such as the
Association for Progressive Communications and Helping.org.
International institutions such as the World Bank, UN, and UNDP
often have a whole slew of digital divide programmes -- including
the WoRLD Links programme, African Virtual University, UNITeS, and
the opportunITy initiative. Faith-based programmes also exist, such
as the Chapel of Peace's computer training programme, and Pura Vida
Telecentres and access providers form the largest
group of programmes, followed by infrastructure providers,
educational programmes, online information sources, training
programmes, applied technology programmes, e-government, and with
e-commerce and technology development providers forming the smaller
set of programmes.
The telecentre initiative is perhaps the most
widely implemented, often cited, and often criticised application of
information technology to bridge the digital divide. Tens of
thousands of telecentres -- locations that provide telephony plus
other additional services to a large and dispersed clientele -- have
been initiated by governments, international donors, NGOs and
Private telecentres provide telephone access for a
fee. Some are adding fax, email, and Internet services, such as
Senegal's micro-enterprise Phone Shops and Africa Online's "E-Touch"
centres in Kenya. Donor-funded telecentres include such projects as
the Nakaseke Multipurpose Community Telecentre in Uganda.
IV. The Future of the Digital Divide and its
Regional growth forecasts estimate that by 2003
Asian users will surpass North American and European users. The base
of Internet users could exceed the 1 billion mark by 2005, with 700
million located outside North America. The Net is becoming
multicultural, multilingual, and multipolar and Asia could account
for 20% of world e-commerce.
The gender divide will steadily decrease, at least
number of women online recently surpassed the number of men. It can
be reasonably expected that the ratio of women online in these
countries will reach levels similar to the country's overall gender
and power balances -- which is often quite unequal, but should be
considered in that larger context.
Some small-scale ground-level projects show that
computers can level the playing field for everyone and especially
help people out of poverty. But on a country-wide level, and around
the world, the statistics indicate that computers simply have not
played that role. Case studies of the Philippines, sub-Saharan
Africa and Brazil show that urban elites, rich expatriates, and
subsidiaries of transnational companies are the main beneficiaries
At a competitive level, there are serious
challenges ahead for companies in developing countries. ICT enabled
companies can beat their smaller, less international competitors.
Most countries could simply be shut out of the global competition,
without the existing resources and investment to develop local ICT
sectors; only a few countries may be able to develop strong
ICT-fuelled economies (India, Brazil).
While the international and domestic digital
divides may shift -- including a few new countries and a slightly
larger segment of society -- the gulf between the "haves" and
"have-nots" will deepen without adequate pro-active measures.
There is a disconnect between on-the-ground
efforts and policy-making processes. Both ground-level initiatives
and policy reform are necessary, and information flow between them
will make both approaches more effective. Unfortunately, there are
few models that effectively bring the two together.
Information technology must be made relevant and
appropriate to truly give people the ability and choice to use it.
But the stark reality is that ICT usually benefits privileged
communities first -- those that have the education and resources to
afford the technology and the skills to use it.
Development initiatives have been essential to
providing basic access to underserved populations, but have failed
to provide sustainable, replicable models for community ICT use, and
often err with top-down approaches that are not grounded on the
needs, interests, and active direction (or even participation) of
Government policy has often tried to meet the
short term demands of their constituencies, but failed to provide a
coherent long term plan for prosperity, or hindered the efforts of
development initiatives and private sector markets to address ICT
The private sector has slowly spread the
technology to middle income groups, but on the whole has, failed to
see the developing world and underserved populations as valuable
markets which require targeted products, thus exacerbating existing
Together, the three have provided pieces of the
puzzle including valuable practical experience in ICT usage, but
failed to provide real access in society, and the economic growth
needed to fuel further access.
Development oriented telecenters such as LINCOS
and online advocacy resources such as Banglarights.net have made a
real impact in the lives of many poor citizens. Market based
initiatives such as Grameen's micro-lending and Vodacom's
Pay-as-you-go phone services have shown that targeted programs can
provide infrastructure and access to reach increasingly wide
audiences, if companies are willing to think creatively.
However, without all three threads, the tapestry
will unravel. Without the entrepreneurship of individual operators
of telecenters spreading technology to middle income groups, and
government policy encouraging and supporting equity, development
initiatives face insurmountable tasks and no funding to finance
(with kind permission of the author)