by Abul Fadl (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 29, No. 23, Dhu al-Qa'dah, 1421)
In an attempt to put a happier face on globalization, G8 (Group of Eight, also known as ‘Greedy Eight’) leaders tried to placate the world’s less fortunate at their summit in Japan last July by promising to set up a Digital Opportunities Task Force (DOT) to identify ways to encourage the spread of technology to the farthest reaches of the “developing world”. Although it remains to be seen whether the G8 will fulfill this pledge, the fact is that a growing digital divide separates the rich and the poor of the world.
The digital revolution has opened up the possibility that the world will be divided into the “information rich” and the “information poor.” In its Human Development Report 1999, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) focused on the risk of information technology marginalization, noting that “the internet poses severe problems of access and exclusion.” The disparity in technology between the “have-nets” and the “have-nots” can be glaringly stark, creating in the process yet another kind of poverty: “information poverty.” The main risk lies in the creation of fault-line in global society, in which only a part of the population has access to information technology, is comfortable using it, and can fully enjoy its benefits.
There are, for example, more Internet hosts in New York City than there are in the entire continent of Africa. More than 80 percent of people in the world have no access to telephone, let alone e-mail or the world wide web. Fewer than 2 percent of people around the world have access to the Internet. Most of them are white, male, well-educated and relatively wealthy. According to the UNDP’s report, industrialized countries, with a mere 15 percent of the world’s population, are the home of 88 percent of all Internet users. However, less than 1 percent of people in South Asia, home to one-fifth of the world’s population, are on-line.
Africa, with a total population of around 740 million people, entered the 21st century with few of the basic telecommunications services that are considered essential in the ‘developed world’. There are currently some 14 million telephone lines and 1 million Internet users in all Africa: much fewer than what many mega-cities in Europe and North America have. In 1996, the principality of Monaco had 99 telephone-lines per 100 people. Similarly, the average Swiss makes about six hours of international telephone calls per year, whereas the average Pakistani makes one minute.
The poor state of the underlying telecommunications infrastructure is not a uniquely African phenomenon. In Eastern Europe, most people are dependent on telephone dial-up connections to the Internet, and will remain so for the time being. Moreover, telephone-density throughout the region is low, service is often of poor quality, and there are long waiting lists for new telephone lines. In 1995 the number of telephone-lines per hundred people in urban Russia was 20, in rural areas it was only 8.
Access to mobile telephone lines, computers and knowledge of the Internet remains for the most part the exclusive domain of the urbanized rich. The vast rural population of the world remains isolated from the telecommunications revolution. Only the fabulously wealthy can afford the modern machines, most popular software and latest multimedia systems sold in computer stores in urban centres throughout much of the developing world; but for the vast majority, computers are still unattainable. The average Ghanaian, for instance, earns the equivalent of less than US$500 a year. The UNDP’s Human Development Report 1999 notes that a computer would cost an average Bangladeshi the equivalent of eight years’ wages; an average American can buy a similar machine for one month’s salary or less.
Illiteracy, lack of basic computer skills and the practice of per-minute charges for local calls constitute major barriers to Internet use in most developing countries. Moreover, 80 percent of all web sites are in English, a language spoken by only 10 percent of the world’s population. In Benin, for example, the illiteracy rate is a staggering 60 percent.
The investment required to make up for a country’s shortfall in technology can be exorbitant. Some experts estimate that some developing countries would have to spend up to 1.5 percent of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to close this information technology gap. Such a figure is wildly beyond the financial abilities of poor countries, many of which are saddled with colossal debt.
In some countries, governments constitute the biggest obstacle to technology-development. Fearing an information society in which virtually unlimited quantities of information are globally available through a user-controlled medium of communication, many governments of developing countries view the Internet with suspicion and have attempted to control or restrict it. In China, for example, all Internet users are required to register with the police; in India, government authorities restrict access to the Internet by imposing exorbitant fees. Other countries, such as Vietnam and Saudi Arabia, permit only a single government-controlled gateway for Internet service.
The money pledged by G8 leaders at Okinawa alone is not likely to bridge the widening technological divide, even if it is actually paid. For one thing, developed countries have a poor record when it comes to helping poor nations develop and deploy technology. Typically, ‘aid’ granted for technological development is short-lived and leaves most of the running costs (maintenance of expensive machines and training of users) to aid agencies and recipient governments.
A mixture of creative public policies and innovative non-governmental initiatives can be instrumental in bridging the technological divide. One possible course is to make e-mail and the Internet available to the public through post offices, public libraries, schools, telecommunications centres and other public facilities where ordinary people can get a free e-mail address, paying only for messages sent and received.
Governments also need to make sure that the availability of computer technology is not just limited to the cities. Schoolchildren in rural areas should be exposed to computers either at their schools or by arranging school trips to take them to urban centres where they can be introduced to and have access to the same technology as those living in the cities.
Removing limitations on the market entry of Internet service providers (ISPs) is instrumental in guaranteeing the availability, affordability and accessibility of information technology. An increase in telephone-density a by a drop in the fees charged for per-minute phone-calls and internet usage would certainly lead to significant growth in the use of and access to the technology.
But all of this supposes that the proper infrastructure is already in place, which would require massive amounts of money that are not within the reach of developing countries. For them, the “information highway” may open up a whole new future, complete with (in the words of US vice-president Al Gore) an “electronic agora” (Greek; place of assembly, market) and “online democracy,” yet access to it requires them to overcome many unresolved age-old problems. However, despite the potential benefits of introducing poor developing countries to the phenomenal “new economy,” the fact remains that the main challenges facing the bulk of their populations are the ones embedded in the “old economy.” They still need jobs, shelter, healthcare, food and drinking water more than electricity, telephones and the Internet.