Global approach to bridging digital divide fails to take into account unique needs of each of the world’s regions

The challenge is that each country has its own agenda, and each region comes to the table with very different wish lists. What works here in Canada, for example, probably isn’t going to work in Malawi or Laos. A “one size fits all” mentality is a serious threat to the success of e-government projects, according to Kate Oakley, director of research programmes at Local Futures Group, a research and strategy consultancy based in the U.K. ICT-led development or e-government projects should take into account what is appropriate in local circumstances; for example, electronic service delivery is unlikely to be of any use in many developing countries for some time to come. Nutrition, housing and health care are still more fundamental needs.

This makes a broad, global approach to bridging the digital divide somewhat ineffective. But the latest attempt, the Doha Action Plan adopted by the World Telecommunication Development Conference, holds hope, since it takes a global, regional and national approach. The conference, held in Doha, Qatar in March, has a specific goal: to bridge the digital divide by 2015. Whether that happens or not will depend on the delegates’ commitment — some 820 from 132 countries — to the priorities they’ve established. While delegates came up with five global initiatives, they also took a different approach where each region defined its unique “top five” priorities, aimed at turning development activities into longer-term projects. The Arab States, for example, are focusing on the development of an Arab regulatory framework and access nodes to connect Arab Internet networks. In the Asia-Pacific, regional initiatives include ICT policy and regulatory co-operation, infrastructure development for rural communications and next-generation network planning, focusing on the needs of small island development states (SIDS). And in Africa, priorities include reinforcing human and institutional capacity, harmonizing legal and political frameworks and developing broadband access and broadcasting networks for regional interconnectivity.

The Americas region, on the other hand, plans to improve connectivity in rural, isolated and marginal urban areas, connect information networks for disaster prevention and improve spectrum management in the Caribbean. The Commonwealth of Independent States plans to strengthen the use of spectrum management to provide multimedia digital broadcast networks in mountainous terrain, introduce telemedicine technologies and establish “centres of excellence” for development of next-generation networks, renewable energy sources and wireless access.

Another focus of the conference was to expand emergency communications, in light of the many recent natural disasters that have occurred around the world. In most cases, the weakest economies are the hardest hit, since their information and communications systems are already inadequate.
The Doha Action Plan recognizes that emergency communications are essential for sustainable development, especially in countries with fragile economies. As a result, there will be an increased focus on helping the least developed countries use ICT tools for disaster early warning, preparedness, response and relief. As well, it’s promoting regional and international co-operation for disaster management, facilitating a global emergency disaster response, and developing wireless and satellite-based solutions to keep the lines of communication open when disaster strikes. This work is to be carried out over the next four years.

Conference delegates said ICT development should be stepped up to reach the 2015 deadline.

But why should Canadians care?

According to research from Accenture and BMI-TechKnowledge, even developed countries face the challenges of ICT funding, skills shortages and lack of monitoring tools to assess the impact of deployed programs.

Every country has its own unique challenges, but we also share some of the same problems — and there’s a lot even developed countries can learn from the trials and tribulations of their less-developed counterparts.

Vawn Himmelsbach is a freelance journalist and former TIG editor. You can contact her at vhimmelsbach@itbusiness.ca

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