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Spanning the Digital Divide: Understanding and Tackling the Issues

Published by, South Africa
21 June, 2001
Review by Madanmohan Rao (

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, 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 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 and peoples.

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, it is critical to involve the private sector, adapt internationally-accepted policies to the local context, and connect on-the-ground initiatives with policy-making.

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 like e-commerce.

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 countries.

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 pay.

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 action.

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 (, 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 "e-Envoy".

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 Bangladesh),

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 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 these goals.

III. Findings, Exemplars, Lessons, and Recommendations

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 needs.

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 longevity.

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 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 Coffee.

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 cottage-industry entrepreneurs.

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 Implications

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 in terms of users of the Internet. In South Africa for example, the 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 of IT.

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 local residents.

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 disparities.

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 inequalities.

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 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 them.

(with kind permission of the author)



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