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Back | Programme Area: Technology and Society (2000 - 2009)

The Development Divide in a Digital Age

This paper considers the role that information and communications technologies (ICTs) can realistically be expected to play in improving the level of living and quality of life of people in different parts of the world. It focuses above all on low-income countries, where most development assistance efforts are concentrated and where the challenge of utilizing ICTs effectively is greatest.

The title of the paper reflects its central argument. The digital divide is an integral part of a much broader and more intractable development divide. The likelihood that people in low-income countries can improve their life chances is often sharply limited not only by their lack of access to modern means of communication and sources of information, but also by a complex network of constraints ranging from unresolved problems of poverty and injustice in their own societies to the structure and dynamics of the global economic system.

When designing ICT programmes in developing countries, these broader constraints must be explicitly taken into account. Thus, at the international level, discussion of possibilities to use the Internet for improving trade and employment opportunities in low-income countries must be accompanied by a frank evaluation of impediments associated with the current global financial and trade regime. If the surrounding context for proposed innovation is not sufficiently analysed, and remedies for pressing economic problems addressed, many well-meaning efforts will have short lives and minimal results.

Lack of attention to the macroeconomic environment (and to deficiencies in basic physical infrastructure and public sector capacity) frequently leads to over-optimism concerning the development potential of e-commerce and telework in the majority of Third World countries. Inattention to these factors can also lessen possibilities for success in other areas. Even the most apparently local initiative—like the provision of access to the Internet in a Third World school or clinic—is likely to fail if that country’s debt burden makes it virtually impossible for the government to maintain adequate programmes of public education and health. Similarly, it is unlikely that the potential of ICTs to improve public administration will be realized when cash-strapped local governments cannot improve incentives within an underpaid and thoroughly demoralized civil service.

Better co-ordination between international ICT initiatives and broader debates on finance for development is thus essential. If the new technologies are to be used well in the struggle against disadvantage, there must also be improved co-ordination between those who work on ICT programmes in development ministries and agencies, on the one hand, and colleagues who follow the sometimes arcane debates on telecommunications and information policies within international organizations like the ITU, WIPO and the WTO, on the other. A development focus is notably lacking in most of these technical debates, yet their outcomes directly affect conditions of access to, and use of, information technologies across the globe.

Turning from international to national policy environments, the paper considers differences among Third World countries in their capacity to use information technologies for development. The most successful efforts to incorporate modern technologies in national economies have occurred in countries with strong and efficient states, as well as a firm commitment to invest in education. In some cases, privatization of the telecommunications infrastructure has been important, but in others it has not. As numerous studies have pointed out, the quality of public service and public regulation are far more significant variables than the structure of ownership. There are virtually endless combinations of the latter, ranging from full state control through different kinds of public-private partnerships, to fully private initiatives—all of which can be effective under certain conditions.

To a very large degree, low-income countries depend on foreign institutions and actors to create both an adequate telecommunications infrastructure and a regulatory framework that is progressive and fair. Development assistance is crucial in this regard. The effort is likely to be more effective if it takes place within the context of national ICT strategies, which make explicit the need to adapt available technical and economic options to the needs of specific countries. These strategies should also provide a framework for better national co-ordination of many disparate efforts, by NGOs and others, to use ICTs to improve public administration and social services, and to support democracy in Third World countries.

It is important to keep an open mind about the kinds of ICTs that are likely to be most appropriate for these purposes. There is a tendency at present to centre discussion of information and communications technologies around the Internet and to channel development assistance largely toward facilitating access to it. But cutting-edge applications are not always what people need most. In some cases, Internet use may prove too expensive or too difficult for local people to maintain, and thus be unsustainable. And in others, the Internet is simply not the best medium for supporting local socioeconomic and political progress.

The ICT revolution is lending old technologies new relevance. In many parts of the world, mobile telephones are transforming people’s quality of life. New digital radio stations are reaching a wide public in an interactive way through call-in programmes. Moreover, when reporters are equipped with mobile phones, their minute-by-minute monitoring of local elections—reported by radio—is making a significant difference in the transparency of electoral processes. Satellite television enormously expands the range of programming available to inhabitants of countries whose governments, until recently, could limit television reception to a few state-run channels. Video cassettes perform a somewhat similar function, providing uncensored news to a network of viewers, at the same time that cassettes allow millions of migrants to stay in touch with their families back home. Even such relatively simple technologies as the fax and photocopier have profoundly transformed the climate for political mobilization in some regions. A recent article on ICTs in the Middle East, for example, presents analysis of new tools for democratization under the heading “Fax, copy, rewind”.

At the grassroots, just as at the national policy level, no single ICT strategy is likely to prove most effective in all cases. Decisions concerning support for one ICT approach or another can only be taken following evaluation of concrete local situations. Furthermore, in the process of designing an appropriate local strategy for using ICTs to the benefit of disadvantaged groups, success will depend at least as much on understanding the structure of economic and political constraints affecting people’s livelihood as on remedying immediate problems of access to ICTs. The paper provides a series of examples to illustrate the point that improved access to information or communications is a vital element in people’s potential well-being; but if surrounding institutions and policies work against empowerment, new technologies cannot accomplish miracles. What Michael Lipton has called “the principle of joint requirements”, in attempting to deal with poverty, is applicable as well to all areas of work on ICTs. Specific programmes for local improvement should only be financed in conjunction with careful attention to broader issues that determine whether an “enabling environment” can be created for development.

Research can play a critical role in generating knowledge about what particular groups and countries do need, and about what approaches seem to be most effective in resolving specific problems. In fact, strengthening institutional capacity for analysis and debate in Third World countries is an indispensable element in the construction of knowledge societies. It can improve the quality of information on which effective policy must be based, as well as the solidity of the political process that stands behind formulation and implementation of that policy. It can also provide an opening for donors to reconsider their own role in the promotion of development, perhaps recasting their efforts in a more participatory fashion.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 1 Aug 2001
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1020-8216
    From: UNRISD