The Digital Divide

LONDON: A global division is arising between the world’s computer haves and have-nots. Call it the digital divide. Seven months ago at the Kyushu-Okinawa Summit the world’s leading industrial countries established a Digital Opportunity Taskforce (dotforce) to share information and communication technologies with poor countries. Are computer technologies, however, really so easily transferred? Moreover, will governments in poor and postcommunist countries seize upon the supposedly magical powers of computers as an excuse not to pursue coherent growth strategies?

It is said that, unless developing and postcommunist countries catch up with the computer “revolution”, their economies will fall ever farther behind. True, integration in the world economy offers the best hope for growth. But global integration cannot be achieved by IT alone. Indeed, the word from Microsoft’s Bill Gates is that poor countries need sound development strategies, not a great leap into cyberspace.

Poverty, underdevelopment, and mal-development result from macroeconomic and industrial policies, skewed income distribution, and flawed market infrastructures. Of these, only the latter may be affected positively by IT.

Undoubtedly, the digital divide excludes much of the world’s population by age, income and residence from today’s computer revolution. To benefit from Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) an economy requires, in addition to sophisticated telecommunications infrastructure, fundamental advances in basic literacy and secondary technical education. These are the pre-conditions for successful technology transfers. A liberal regulatory regime helps, too. So, clearly, the dotforce initiative is no stand-alone development tool. Governments must also act.