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No. 1 (January 2001)
Very few benefits of modern life are available to the world's poor. Telephone and Internet are no exception to this rule.
Research statistics show that New York has more telephone connections than all rural Asia. London has more Internet accounts than the whole of Africa. As much as 80% of the world's population has never made a phone call. The Internet connects 100 million computers. Yet that represents less than 2% of the world's population. Considering the unprecedented alacrity with which digital networks are spreading, forecasts say that as many as one billion Internet connections will be lined up worldwide by 2005, three billion by 2010. Theoretically that should connect almost every family and every village on earth's surface.
In practice, the growth patterns are extremely uneven, and private Internet connections will remain unavailable to the vast majority of the population in developing countries and transition economies for the foreseeable future. Information systems generate and provide access to knowledge, wealth and power. Persisting inability of the poor to participate in their use can have serious social consequences.
Unlike most other forms of disparity between the privileged and the less fortunate, the disparity in relation to telephone and Internet access has an instantly recognizable and universally used name: "Digital Divide", or simply "the Divide". This name also reflects the expectation that bridging the Divide, i.e. providing better information access through electronic media, will lead to a dramatic improvement regarding the situation of the poor and underprivileged overall. In fact, historical experience confirms that information technology does play a central role in societal development (www.wittenberg-academy.de/interfaces.htm#Bill).
In the United States, the phenomenon of "digital divide" gained high profile when it was used in the US President's State of the Union Address 2000. Clinton said: "Opportunity for all requires having access to a computer and knowing how to use it. That means, we must close the digital divide between those who've got the tools and those who don't."
On a global scale, the term "digital divide" is also used in reference to telephone connection, an indispensable prerequisite for Internet access and important communication tool in it's own right. Some analysts (for example, Kunda Dixit, director of Panos South Asia, a media institute in Nepal) also include television as part of "the holy trinity of the Information Age - television, telephone and computer". Radio, a medium with some degree of established accessibility for the poor in developing countries, is also drawing renewed interest as a veteran among the modern information technologies. Satellites and solar power make it possible, at least theoretically, to create access to modern information technology even where telephone lines and electricity connections do not exist.
At the 2000 Economic Summit in Davos, the Divide, in its global dimension, was a top agenda point. Mark Malloch Brown, Administrator, UN Development Program, expressed the growing concern and involvement of international inter-government organizations: "The goal must be for information technology to deliver revolutionary breakthroughs in terms of giving the world's poor access to global economy."
World Bank President James Wolfensohn, at another occasion in 2000, exclaimed: "We must work towards the day when through the internet, through distance learning, through cellular phones and wind-up radios, the village elder or the aspiring students will have access to the same information as the finance minister. Communications technology gives us the tool for true participation. This is leveling the playing field. This is real equity."
It is easy to find declarations from representatives of international organizations, governments, industry, non-government organizations and advocacy groups regarding the importance of bridging the digital divide. Comments from the intended beneficiaries, and those at the receiving end, on the other hand, are extremely rare.
The vast majority of the intended beneficiaries would well be able to describe problems and needs of their community in the areas of employment, nutrition, health, education, transport and communication, but would hardly come up with the issue of "digital divide". No study results on "digital divide awareness" were available at the time of writing this article, but the experiences of field workers in India, a country with high exposure to information technology, may serve as a rough orientation. They suggest that Internet access does not figure high on the poor communities' list of priorities, even with prompting. In many languages of the world, the term "digital divide" is hardly understandable without elaborate explanation, when translation is attempted.
This difference of perception is mainly due to the nature of the issue. Views may change once modern information and communication technologies have actually been established and put to use on the grassroots level.
Initiatives to Bridge the Divide
Testimonies of individuals and communities who have benefited from initiatives to bridge the Divide show the potential of modern communication technologies to induce positive change.
In an Ashaninka Indian village in central Peru, tribal leader Oswaldo Rosas recounts how life in his thatched hut settlement without electricity or water had been nothing but grueling struggle till Internet changed everything. Now, as Rosas's hut doubles as a tribal cyber cafe, he beams with optimism. He believes that the incessant buzz of the computer is 'the first real chance' given to his people.
This chance to access the Internet without owning the required equipment and connections was made possible recently, through grants from a Lima-based NGO, the Canadian government and the local telephone company. The whole unit was set up with a computer, a portable generator, a satellite dish and a big screen monitor that assists video conferencing for high school education. With eight weeks of computer training that Rosas and five other tribal leaders received, they've built an Ashaninka web site (www.rcp.net.pe/ashaninka) showcasing their folklore.
Moreover, tribal revenue has gone up by 10% as they use the medium of e-commerce to sell organically grown oranges in Lima, 250 miles to the east. The Ashaninka experience gives a glimpse of the exceptional potential of the nascent power called Internet. Experts see Latin America as the fastest growing global Internet market. Telecommunications analysts believe that an explosion of Internet companies has helped disadvantaged population groups put a dent in a territory that was, till very recently, dominated by the white, male, urban, university educated and rich or upper middle class.
In Argentina, the government launched a $1 billion program for offering personal computer loans to people who can't obtain conventional credit. In Chile, the government completed an ambitious plan to wire all 1,263 public high schools to the Internet, in order to provide access to students of all economic levels. In Brazil, NGOs have introduced computer courses and Internet connections to hundreds of slums. Simultaneously, computer donations and free connections provided by IT companies have made the Internet more accessible to Latin Americans than ever.
Numerous initiatives and programs to address the Divide are also underway in other parts of the world, including countries in Asia and Africa. A major focus of such attempts lies in South Asia, particularly India and Bangladesh.
In Bangladesh, information technology programs for the poor benefit from the involvement of the Grameen Bank, a worldwide reputed institution in the area of poverty reduction (www.grameen-info.org). The Grameen Bank (Village Bank) is also known as "the Bank for the Poor". Founded by economy professor Muhammed Yunus more than twenty years ago, it gives credit to poor rural women through a system of credit groups. The Grameen Bank is now also a provider of telephone and Internet services, and reports a boost of opportunities for some of its lenders through the use of cell phones.
Nazneen Sultana, Managing Director of Grameen Bank Communications, shared experiences at the occasion of a workshop on Local-Global Connectivity organized by the World Bank in December last year. "Please give the technology to the poor people", she said. "They can use it in their own way. They are so efficient."
India is known to constitute a huge talent pool for US-based and other international IT companies. A very significant proportion of software developers and managers of these companies are Indians, and IT companies are major players in the debate and action programs on digital divide. Therefore, it's natural for India to develop a special interest in the issue.
Access to modern information technology is becoming a reality for more and more consumers in India. For example, "pay for use" telephone kiosks, operated by local entrepreneurs, many of whom are women, have made the telephone accessible to countless millions in urban and rural India. Some enterprising investors have added fax machines and PCs to their portfolio. Further, there's a boom of cyber cafes that specialize in renting access time, for as little as the equivalent of US $ 0.30 / hour. Very soon competition will bring down the rates even lower. For every PC and Internet connection, there are approximately 20-25 users. This goes to prove that a relaxation of the constraint of individual ownership opens up new avenues of opportunity.
However, there are great variations in different regions of India. Moreover, telephone and Internet connections are often quite unstable as soon as one leaves the mega cities. Access to technology is constrained by parameters like electricity, telephone mainlines, Internet hosts and bandwidth. Per capita electricity consumption in KwH in 1997 was only 363 (Hong Kong: 4, 959, UK: 5,241, USA: 11,822). The differences regarding telephone lines and Internet hosts are even more distinct.
Though the Indian government estimates more than 50 per cent of the national income to be generated in the countryside, India's rural economy is virtually untouched by modern technology. Moreover, effective overall average purchasing power is restricted by the absence of steady, year-round jobs. This causes disposable income to be concentrated in a relatively small fraction of the population. Inefficient transport and communication infrastructure makes information hard to come by, and market options are not clear or widely known. And where selling of farm produce to city markets is concerned, middlemen make good money by taking advantage of the villagers' ignorance of the market prices.
TARAhaat (www.tarahaat.com) and Gyandoot (www.gyandoot.net) are inspiring projects nurturing the acquisition, exchange and use of knowledge that is relevant for the communities they serve. Operating out of the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, both these projects take into account that massive barriers still exist. Not only poor infrastructure, but also illiteracy is the bane of rural people. However, even with low literacy rates compared to industrialized countries (51 % according to the 1991 national census), a "critical mass" of sufficiently literate people exists even in poor and underdeveloped rural areas. Certainly, the literate does not constitute a representative section of the population. But the existing gender, class and caste differences in educational status are gradually leveled out by literacy programs directed at girls/ women and scheduled castes and tribes (i.e., castes and tribes who have been scheduled as disadvantaged and in need of special support programs). The language barrier is another impediment. This is addressed by offering a Hindi language option on the web sites. Some English speakers are usually available even in remote areas, so that it is possible to make fuller use of the Internet and establish a degree of global connectivity as well.
Employing the Indian concept of 'haat' (market and meeting place), TARAhaat is an offering from the Development Alternatives Group and its marketing arm, Technology and Action for Rural Advancement (TARA). Through mobilization of under-utilized assets and generating new ones, TARAhaat attempts to generate wealth in the rural economy and for its shareholders. This portal acts as a gateway by furnishing relevant information, products, and services via the Internet that connects the districts of Bundelkhand to information services, government agencies, and information on commodity prices.
Gyandoot, a support network connecting rural cyber cafes, operates from the Dhar district in Madhya Pradesh. In cooperation with local authorities, Gyandoot also offers services like information on prices of commodities, copies of local maps and plot registrations, online submission of various applications to the public authorities, income certificate and various other official documents and public grievance redressal with assured email reply. Moreover, the site provides a variety of other information relevant for the area. This has created hopes of better lives for the villagers.
Cellular networking and schemes to set up rural Public Call Offices are under way in several states of India. In Gujrat, companies like Amul, manufacturer of dairy products, are exploring the Internet for ways to enhance their marketing systems and create more employment opportunities. Ministries and government organizations, both on national and state level, have set up web sites that provide more transparency for the citizens, for example, by putting the national budget on the web.
Initiatives worldwide show the tremendous potential of modern information and communication technologies in the area of poverty reduction. Case stories from such initiatives give hope. Much can be learnt from positive examples, but a comprehensive analysis of the factors that make such efforts work or stumble is still to be initiated. Are we actually seeing changes that support the strategy to make the digital divide one of the top priorities in poverty reduction?
Over the last decades, the experience of development cooperation has shown that a short-lived motivation boom frequently occurs at the initial stage of projects that have high-level attention and receive some kind of input. There is nothing wrong with such a "Hawthorne effect" (or "tender loving care effect"), and the poverty issue certainly needs the highest level of attention it can get. But to be able to design broad-based and sustainable approaches, the effect of the attention needs to be differentiated from the effect of the input itself.
We must look at the whole package of necessary inputs and efforts, apart from the provision of Internet access and some computer training. Transparency about inputs and benefits, also in quantifiable terms, is important for any development initiative, but particularly for those that set out to enable people to make comparisons and choices.
Most of the initiatives designed to bridge the digital divide are too recent to expect an evaluation. However, it is a matter of concern that evaluation is not typically an in-built component. Mechanisms need to be introduced to learn from the combined experiences of projects that bring information technology to the poor. Some initiatives have made first steps in this direction. In particular, the Grameen Bank's case study on its village phone program in rural Bangladesh, conducted by the Canadian-based Telecommons Development Group (www.telecommons.com), deserves a special mention. This study goes beyond the tale of encouraging case stories and provides some salient facts and figures about the program. It also includes a reference to the gender aspect of access to public or community-based telephone services.
Even enthusiasts do not claim that initiatives to promote access to modern communication technology for the poor typically originate at the grassroots level. More often than not, they are "top-down" approaches, at least initially. The local NGOs that implement them receive support from governments (who, in turn, often use loans and grants from donor organizations such as the World Bank) or from corporate foundations interested in the IT sector.
A Seattle-based non-profit organization, Digital Partners (www.digitaldivide.org), plays a leading role in the worldwide campaign against the digital divide. It has at present three Chapters outside Seattle, two in North America (New York, Vancouver), and one in South Asia (New Delhi). In the advocacy of new information technologies, public and corporate concerns are closely intertwined. This situation offers new opportunities and yields innovative approaches ("public/ private partnerships", "poor/ non-poor coalitions") but also constitutes a particular challenge.
The debate on "the Divide" has focused an encouraging degree of public and political attention on the global poverty issue. In their own way, IT executives are perhaps more effective in creating this level of awareness than even saints and social revolutionaries have been in the past. Some analysts perceive it as ironic that this should have been achieved with a relatively simple agenda: to co-opt broad-based support for supplying more computers and mobile phones to the poor countries and communities of the world. Of course, for all donations from the industry, this would ultimately involve a substantial share of public funding.. There is no such thing as a free lunch.
The apparent simplicity of tackling "the Divide" as a matter of access to information technology is breathtaking. It is a tremendous strength and opportunity. But it is also a weakness if the interplay of different factors that influence societal change is not taken into account.
Actions on "the Divide" can empower the poor through better information, communication and connectivity with global economic and social developments. In order to achieve this, initiatives must be better linked with other development efforts. They must be designed to learn from both failure and success, systematically and soberly.
with contributions from Vinay Rajpal, Göran Airijoki and Heide Richter-Airijoki
Copyright © 2001 Wittenberg Academy gGmbH
The following links relate to other relevant initiatives that have not been explicitly reflected in this article:
http://www.idrc.ca/acacia, http://www.usaid.gov/regions/afr/leland/, http://www.balancingact-africa.com/, http://www.cddc.vt.edu/knownet/articles/wce-case.html, http://www.vod.panasia.org.sg/farmknow/, http://www.villageleap.com, http://uib-kerigma.colnodo.apc.org/mapa/, http://www.chasquinet.org/ninosdelacalle/e-pag1.html, http://www.iicd.org/globalteenagers, http://www.aquachoupal.com, http://postboxonline.com, http://www.fundaschool.org, http://xlweb.com/food/wireless/final.htm, http://www.simputer.org, http://www.nairobits.org