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Technology, Business and Society Programme Paper 4: The Development Divide in a Digital Age

1 Sep 2001

This paper considers the role that information and communications technologies (ICTs) can realistically play in improving the life of millions. It focuses on low-income countries, where most development assistance efforts concentrate and where the challenge of utilizing ICTs is greatest.

The digital divide is symptomatic of the broader and more intractable development divide. The likelihood that people in low-income countries can improve their life chances is limited not only by their lack of access to modern means of communication and sources of information, but also by poverty and injustice and the structure and dynamics of the global economic system.

This paper argues that, 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 economic problems addressed, well-meaning efforts will have minimal impact. Hence, "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", the paper explains.

Better co-ordination between international ICT initiatives and broader debates on finance for development is 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 lacking in most of these technical debates, yet their outcomes directly affect conditions of access to, and use of, information technologies across the globe.

This paper also demonstrates that 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.

Low-income countries depend heavily 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.

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. In this context, it is argued, research becomes a vital factor for success.

Cynthia Hewitt de Alcántara is Deputy Director of UNRISD and Co-ordinator of the Institute's research project on Information Technologies and Social Development.

Order PPTBS 4 from UNRISD ($5 for readers in the North; $2.50 for readers in the South).