Digital Divide

Excerpt From: Rischard, Jean-Francois.

“High Noon: 20 Global Problems, 20 Years To Solve Them.” iBooks.


“Just as education can equalize or divide countries and people, information and communications technologies can go either way. Right now, these technologies—even though they have sometimes advanced surprisingly in some developing countries (Chapter 4)—are very unevenly distributed. The resulting “digital divide” is of great concern.



One consequence of the investment binge of the last few years is an unbelievable overcapacity in the world’s communications system. If the world’s 6 billion people were to talk nonstop on the phone for the next year, their words could be transmitted in a few hours through the currently available bandwidth—the capacity that connects homes and offices to each other and to providers of data all over the world.

Yet some 2 billion people have never made a phone call. Cities like Manhattan and Tokyo have more telephone lines than all of sub-Saharan Africa. Cellular phone networks cover only 20 percent of the earth, mostly in rich countries. The telephone density (phone lines per 100 inhabitants) is fifty to sixty in rich countries but less than two in the poorest developing countries. Even among developing countries, the distribution of telecommunications is skewed: in 1999, ten large developing countries accounted for 80 percent of foreign investment in the sector. Within countries, there are equally wide disparities: in Nepal, urban homes are 100 times more likely to have phones than rural ones.

Information technology is even more unevenly distributed. The Internet traffic between the United States and Europe is 100 times that reaching Africa, and thirty times that reaching Latin America. About 10 percent of the world population understands English, the language of 75 percent of all web sites. Rich countries have 95 percent of all Internet hosts, Africa only 0.25 percent. This has something to do with low telephone density: with less than five telephones per 100, it is next to impossible for a country to leap into serious, countrywide Internet connectivity.

Why should we worry about this? Because these technologies offer tremendous leapfrogging possibilities for developing countries—in so many areas that it has become hard to imagine a country developing and reducing its poverty levels without them:

Reducing isolation. Cellular telephony in Bangladesh shows how a single cellular phone per village can become a real business, and a lifeline. Over the Andes, satellites providing telephony in rural areas cut down communication costs dramatically compared to the slow postal system.


Education. New technologies enable teacher training and networking that raise the quality of basic education. Kids learn elementary computer skills by trial and error through “computers-in-the-wall” in Indian slums. Business schools reach hundreds of remote sites through interactive distance education in South Africa. And recall the Monterrey Tech example from Chapter 5.

Electronic government. This breakthrough application is spreading fast and holds great promise for improving services to people and for cutting down opacity, bureaucratic hassle, errors and fraud. In Mauritania, an improved budget-management system paid for itself in a few months. The government system of the Indian state Andhra Pradesh is being computerized, with massive gains in efficiency and transparency.

Medicine. The applications of information technology to health cover a large range—patient information, training of nurses, hygiene instructions, and even, in some cases, remote diagnostics. Data collected by remote sensors along 50,000 kilometers of African rivers have helped get river blindness under control.

Environmental management and ecologically balanced agriculture. Internet-based networking, satellite detection, and best-practice exchanges can bring rapid progress in these two areas.

Enterprise connectivity. Even small businesses in the developing world can hook up to their markets and their larger partners in rich countries. Recall the Moroccan garment maker and the Ethiopian goat farmer in Chapters 4 and 5.

I could go on and on. In short, new technologies have become one of the most potent ways to accelerate development and reduce poverty in ways no one could have thought of even ten years ago. But from a global standpoint, it’s also a matter of making sure that these technologies narrow the wealth and income gap—as opposed to letting their currently highly uneven distribution degenerate into what Berkeley professor Manuel Castells calls “technological apartheid.” Given the speed of the new technologies’ spread in rich countries, this is a global issue of some urgency. There is a lot of catching up to do.

And it’s not an issue that calls for expensive solutions. Addressing it does not mean showering poor countries with donated phones and PCs. It means helping them develop themselves into plugged-in, savvy users of the new technologies. The kinds of global measures to consider are as follows:

Help more than 100 developing countries rapidly develop the policies that will facilitate their transformation into knowledgebased societies across all the dimensions, from education to information infrastructure to research and innovation.

Generalize the Chilean technique of tying private-sector investment in expanded telecommunications to remote area coverage—perhaps providing a global subsidy fund for the purpose (see Chapter 3).

Tilt aid programs far more towards basic connectivity—including financing community communications centers in small towns and villages—and towards higher computer density and literacy levels.

Provide a global best-practice exchange capability on the whole range of promising applications of the new technologies in developing country settings.

Set up global North-South enterprise incubation and mentoring systems that can kick in fast. This is important because experience in Brazil and elsewhere shows that beyond sheer connectivity and Internet access, for countries to take off they need to develop a whole mesh of small companies, Internet service providers, and local content producers.

Promote the use of the new technologies in other global issues areas, such as infectious diseases, education for all, and natural disaster prevention.

One could argue that this as yet largely unfulfilled agenda—parts of which were discussed at the G7’s Okinawa and Genoa summits in 2000 and 2001—isn’t at the same level of global urgency as other issues on the list of twenty. That would be a misreading. Like many issues of the second category, it’s a powerful “underlier” issue, whose solution facilitates addressing other issues.”


Excerpt From: Rischard, Jean-Francois.

“High Noon: 20 Global Problems, 20 Years To Solve Them.” iBooks.