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The Digital Divide and the MDGs

As the UN specialized agency for information and communication technologies (ICTs), ITU plays a critical role in fostering equitable access to the modern technologies that can transform people’s lives and help break the vicious cycle of poverty and isolation.

ITU’s development goals – set by the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis in 2005 and the World Telecommunication Development Conference in Doha in 2006, prioritize equitable access, not just across countries, but within communities, with special focus on gender issues, youth access, the disabled, indigenous communities and very remote populations. There is also a special direct aid programme targeting the 49 UN-designated Least Developed Countries (LDCs).

"To achieve the MDGs, we must harness the potential of ICTs"
Kofi Annan, former UN Secretary-General

The Digital Divide

In 1985, ITU commissioned ‘The Missing Link’, a report which drew international attention to the shocking imbalance in access between developed and developing countries. The report was the first to underline the direct correlation between ICT infrastructure and economic growth, and to attempt to quantify what became known as the ‘digital divide’. It set the goal that nearly all humankind should be within two hours’ walk of a telephone by the year 2000.

Almost 10 years on from what seemed an ambitious goal, the world is a very different place. Mobile technology has taken markets by storm, bringing ready access to voice and data services to the populations of countries which, back in 1985, had fewer than one phone line for every 500 people.

The number of mobile cellular subscriptions worldwide has now surpassed 4.1 billion, and well over 1.5 billion people have access to the Internet. In terms of ICT access it’s been a miraculous millennium for most of the world’s poorest nations, and especially the LDCs, with the total number of mobile cellular subscriptions in the LDCs as a whole rising more than 60-fold since the year 2000 – from under 2 million to almost 120 million by the end of 2007.

Still, many problems remain. Buoyant regional growth averages hide wide disparities. So while some LDCs are booming – at end 2008, Gambia, Equatorial Guinea and Mauritania all boasted mobile penetrations of over 60%, much higher than the European average in the year 2000 – Eritrea and Ethiopia both have effective teledensities of less than 4%. In the Pacific, Samoa has a mobile penetration of 48%; Kiribati, its near neighbour, has under 1%. And Myanmar, in contrast to many markets in Asia, has just 8 mobile subscriptions per 1,000 people.

Such figures make for a stark contrast with the industrialized world, where Europe now has more mobile subscriptions than inhabitants. But phone service is just one part of the puzzle in a globalized economy that increasingly relies on online information exchange. At the turn of the millennium, the 49 LDCs shared just 178,000 Internet subscribers. While that number is rising, penetration remains very low, at just 2% in 2008. At the end of 2008, the entire African continent – home to over 50 countries and close to a billion people – still had fewer Internet subscribers than France.

Turning to broadband, penetration in most of the developing world is still largely confined to foreign-owned businesses and the tourism sector. In 30 of the world’s developing nations, the cost of a monthly broadband subscription is over 100% of per capita monthly gross national income – compared with under 2.5% of per capita GNI in the top 40 countries on the ITU’s ICT Price Basket.

The Digital Divide and the MDGs

When they approved the Millennium Declaration in 2000, world leaders reiterated their belief that ICTs would be instrumental to meeting all eight MDGs. Improved access to ICTs can improve farming practices and assist micro-entrepreneurs; help disseminate the information and health services that can prevent AIDS and other communicable diseases; promote equality by empowering women to take economic control of their lives; and foster environmental protection through climate monitoring and early response. Indeed, one MDG target explicitly promotes increased availability of the many benefits of ICTs throughout the developing world.


"ITU continues to monitor the development of the digital divide and is undertaking many projects to bring high-speed broadband Internet access to rural and underserved areas."
Dr Hamadoun Touré, ITU Secretary-General


We are now over half way to the 2015 MDG deadline, and ICTs have indeed played a huge part in driving progress towards these critical goals. ICT-based applications and services – such as electronic commerce, distance learning, telemedicine and e-government – are improving the quality of life for countless people around the world.


  • ICTs are helping eradicate extreme poverty and hunger through village phone projects, where poor women are given assistance in buying mobile telephones, and can then sell phone services on to fellow villagers. Now in place in several countries worldwide, this initiative alone has created 100,000 new jobs, and provided phone access to more than 60 million people in poor rural areas. At the same time, by connecting low-income artisans to global markets, online cooperatives give poor craftspeople direct access to consumers, rather than having to sell to middlemen, who take most of the profits. And by providing direct, relevant agricultural information online, and in local languages, ICTs can also help farmers vastly improve the productivity of their land.

  • ICTs are helping achieve universal primary education and gender equality. In Rwanda, distance learning is being widely used to train teachers and deliver information, education and critical life-skills via solar-powered radios to young people orphaned by civil strife or disease. It’s also helping break the cycle of women’s poverty by teaching girls and women to read, learn maths, and develop basic ICT skills.

  • ICTs are helping combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases. Through the Global Media AIDS Initiative, more than 50 broadcast networks are working to increase public awareness and promote prevention, while also helping reduce the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS. To fight the scourge of malaria, satellite monitoring is now helping identify, target and control mosquito breeding areas. And telemedicine is making possible great advances in the fight against tuberculosis and other infectious diseases, as well as many chronic conditions such as diabetes.

  • ICTs are helping ensure environmental sustainability. Initiatives such as using radio programmes to promote better farming practices; using satellites to monitor rain forests, glaciers and the polar regions; and reducing the energy requirements of new technology are all contributing to creating a more environmentally sound way of life.

ITU’s Role

When it comes to improving access and accessibility to ICTs, there is no simple panacea. Instead, ITU adopts a multi-pronged, multi-stakeholder approach that targets key areas ranging from technology and ICT regulation to public-private partnership initiatives and grass-roots capacity building.


Bridging the standardization gap

La normalisation est elle aussi considérée comme un moyen important de réduire la fracture numérique.

L'UIT s'emploie à favoriser une participation accrue des pays en développement au processus de normalisation. Outre qu'elle organise davantage de réunions dans des pays en développement, elle met en place de nouvelles formes de participation à distance.

Bridging the standardization gap will allow developing countries to profit from access to new technology development and ensure that their needs are taken into account in the development of standards. It will give developing countries a voice in the development of next generation ICTs and sow the seeds of a truly equitable information society.

Technical standards play a critical role in defining the technical and economic landscape around the world. All communities affected by standards should have a voice in their creation. Technology is a way for the poor of the world to break free from poverty.

Through its work on spectrum planning, knowledge sharing and regulatory reform, ITU is playing an active role in promoting new technologies well-suited to developing world conditions, such as high-speed cellular mobile, VSAT and long distance wireless platforms like WiMAX.

Through its comprehensive portfolio of regulatory activities, including its annual Global Symposium for Regulators, its global Telecommunication Regulatory Survey, its ICT Regulation Toolkit and its clearing-house service, managed in partnership with the World Bank, which provides instant access to regulatory decisions in markets worldwide, ITU is fostering the regulatory best practice that will help stimulate ICT uptake.

Capacity building is another vital area where ITU plays a highly proactive role, helping build awareness at the user level while at the same time focusing on the training of ICT professionals who will serve as a pool of skilled personnel to support network roll-outs, maintenance and management in developing nations. ITU’s Internet Training Centre (ITC) initiative, has already seen the establishment of 66 ITCs in 56 nations, 20 of which are LDCs. Together, these Centres have already trained over 3,000 graduates, with a further 3,000 students currently enrolled.

Complementing this, ITU has also contributed US$9 million in seed funding to help set up ICT Centres of Excellence in regions around the world. Designed to offer continuous education to senior ICT managers in the public and private sectors through distance learning programmes, these Centres serve as regional focal points for professional development, research, and knowledge sharing, as well as providing revenue-generating specialist consultancy services to external clients.

In addition, ITU is actively partnering with leading ICT manufacturers and service providers to fund YES, the ICT Youth Education Scheme. Launched in 2003, the programme has awarded more than 50 scholarships to gifted tertiary students in developing countries to enable them to pursue ICT-related studies. International YES partners include Alcatel-Lucent, the Portuguese ICT regulator Anacom, Nokia Communications, Egypt’s NTI, Thales Communications, and Vodafone.


As the agency ‘Committed to Connecting the World’, ITU believes in the fundamental human right to communicate – and in the power of ICTs to serve as catalysts in helping reach the Millennium Development Goals.


To further harness the power of public-private partnership, ITU launched Connect the World, an innovative development initiative founded on building multi-stakeholder synergies between private companies, governments and development agencies. To build on the momentum generated by this new focus ITU recently initiated the ITU Connect events, the first of which welcomed over 1,000 top-level delegates and raised an unprecedented US$ 55 billion in investment commitments targeting intra-regional connectivity. Held in Kigali, Rwanda, ITU Connect Africa saw commitments to interconnect all African capitals and major cities with ICT broadband infrastructure and strengthen connectivity to the rest of the world by 2012, and to extend broadband and ICT services to all African villages by 2015.

ITU is now extending this highly successful initiative to other world regions, with the next ITU Connect event, which targets the CIS region, taking place in Minsk, Belarus from 26-27 November 2009.









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Updated : 2009-09-30