How much ICT do the have-nots need to have?

The so-called digital divide between the have and the have-not nations globally has narrowed in the last decade but international development experts say ICT’s should work in conjunction with more practical approaches to helping the world’s poor.

According to a recent report by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), over the last 10 years, the digital divide between the developing and the developed countries has been decreasing in terms of fixed telephone lines, mobile subscribers and Internet users. The report, prepared for ITU’s World Telecommunication Development Conference (WTDC) in Doha, Qatar in March, largely attributes the closing of the gap to high growth rates in the mobile sector.

The objective of the conference, which attracted nearly 1,000 attendees from 132 countries, was to agree on development priorities in light of the digital divide and to promote partnerships that will maintain and build upon telecommunication infrastructure in developing countries.

ITU statistics show that from 1994 to 2004, the number of mobile telephone subscribers per 100 inhabitants grew from near zero to 19 in the developing countries and from five to 77 in the developed countries. For the same time period, the number of fixed telephone lines per 100 inhabitants grew from four to 13 in the developing countries and from 49 to 54 in the developed countries.

On the other hand, access to and use of the technology is not evenly dispersed regionally. For example, ITU said in 2004 Europe’s mobile penetration rate stood at 71 per cent – two times that of the Americas at 43 per cent; four times that of Asia at 19 per cent; and eight times that of Africa. Less than one out of ten people in Africa subscribe to a mobile service.

When looking at ICT’s and development, Steve Song, manager for the ICT for development program in Africa at the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) in Ottawa said a good approach is to not think of the two concepts in silos, rather as parts of an incorporated whole.

“It’s not an either/or question of should there be water sanitation or ICT’s,” said Song, who is currently working on a project to develop university ICT infrastructure in Africa. “It’s an integrated problem that demands integrated solutions. ICT’s are an effective leader for development and can enhance any development initiative.”

IDRC is a Canadian Crown corporation that works with researchers from the developing world to help them improve social and economic conditions in their countries. In Africa, IDRC works in Senegal, Kenya, Uganda, Mozambique and South Africa.

The integrated approach of ICT’s and development is vastly different from six years ago at the G8 Summit in Okinawa in 2000, in which ICT’s were described as a cure-all to eradicating world poverty, said Jean-Philippe Boutin, an environmental and IT consultant who is based in Montreal.

“For the (World Summit on the Information Society) in 2003 there were a number of different reports that were written,” said Boutin. “Some were more still, ‘ICT is the panacea.’

“I agree more that the perspective that ICT should be a tool in a general development strategy looking at the root causes of poverty and what those causes are.”

Boutin speaks from personal experience. In 1998, he traveled to Vietnam as part of a government-sponsored internship program with Montreal-based NetCorps-Cyberjeunes to help a non-governmental organization there set up a network at its main office and build a Web site.

Boutin said IT was seen as a way to transfer information to Vacvina’s regional offices, which give information to people about projects such as the use of biogas generated from pig manure.

Further, Song said after the dot-com bubble burst a lot of the hype surrounding what ICT could do for everything and everyone also had an impact on what it could do for international development.

“A lot of the grand illusions have disappeared about the magic of the Internet to solve problems,” he said. “The people have become a lot more pragmatic in the post-dot-com bubble burst. People have adopted a more realistic approach to these solutions.”

However, Bernard Courtois, president and CEO of the Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC), said many people in developing nations focus on ICT as key to their development to a greater degree than people in developed nations and that for them, the crash of the tech stock market was a non-event.

“ICT is about moving around information,” said Courtois. “Sometimes you underestimate the degree to which in developing countries moving information is important to allowing development.”

Courtois added that ICT can help play a role in fighting diseases such as AIDS. “If it’s AIDS or anything like that, ICT can help (people) fight AIDS quite a bit because you need to share information and you need to educate people,” he said.

The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) was held in two phases with the first phase taking place in Geneva, Switzerland in December 2003 and the second phase in Tunis in November 2005. The objective of the summits was to build an inclusive and development-oriented Information Society based on the Charter of the United Nations. ITU and other stakeholders at WSIS also set up an initiative called, “Connect the World,” with the goal of connecting the unconnected to the Internet by 2015.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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