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Information rich information poor Monday, 1 November, 1999, 19:01 GMT
Losing ground bit by bit
By BBC News Online's Jane Black

The hype for everything online obscures the reality about how technology is changing life at the end of the 20th century.

Information rich, information poor - Digital divide
  • Introduction
  • The widening gap

    Case studies

  • Burkina Faso
  • Mongolia
  • Morocco
  • United States
  • From Manhattan and Madrid, the Internet has fundamentally changed work, recreation - even love. But in Malawi and Mozambique, life remains very much the same.

    More than 80% of people in the world have never heard a dial tone, let alone sent an email or downloaded information from the World Wide Web.

    "Think how powerful the Internet is. Then remind yourself that fewer than 2% of people are actually connected," said Larry Irving, former US assistant secretary of commerce. The power of the Web increases exponentially with every person who goes online. Imagine what we're missing."

    Facts first

    First the figures. The statistics on the basic building block of connectedness - that is, phone lines - are stark.

    According to the latest UN Human Development Report, industrialised countries, with only 15% of the world's population, are home to 88% of all Internet users. Less than 1% of people in South Asia are online even though it is home to one-fifth of the world's population.

    The situation is even worse in Africa. With 739 million people, there are only 14 million phone lines. That's fewer than in Manhattan or Tokyo. Eighty percent of those lines are in only six countries. There are only 1 million Internet users on the entire continent compared with 10.5 million in the UK.

    Even if telecommunications systems were in place, most of the world's poor would still be excluded from the information revolution because of illiteracy and a lack of basic computer skills.

    In Benin, for example, more than 60% of the population is illiterate. The other 40% are similarly out of luck. Four-fifths of Websites are in English, a language understood by only one in 10 people on the planet.


    The lack of resources in poor communities can't explain the technology gap alone.

    In the developing world, there is still resistance to the idea that technology is a quick-fix.

    Take the African Virtual University. The World Bank-sponsored programme has broadcast over 2000 hours of instruction to over 9000 students in all regions of sub-Saharan Africa. The initiative has allowed AVU students to take courses given by professors from world-renowned educational institutions in Africa, North America, and Europe.

    That does not impress Ethiopian Meghistab Haile: "With that money just imagine how many lecturers you could have. If the World Bank is really wanting to help African universities then the first step would be to encourage and support the Africans to return back. In the end it is only the Africans who could solve their problems."

    Others complain that high-tech education - available only to a select elite - is not worth it when so many places on the continent are still without electricity and running water.

    "Our priorities are hygiene, sanitation, safe drinking water," said Supatra Koirala who works at a private nursing home in Kathmandu. "How is having access to the Internet going to change that?"

    How to close the gap

    As the famous Alcoholics Anonymous saying goes: Admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery. International organisations, governments and private institutions are just starting to do this.

    When I was first talking about the Internet in the developing world in 1992, I was called a 'technofascist' and a 'cybercolonist'," said Larry Irving. "Now I don't get those comments, just questions about how can we get this - and fast."

    Magda Escobar, Executive Director of Plugged In, a non-profit working to bring technology resources to poor communities in California, agrees.

    The convergence of a lot of different interests has put this on the agenda," she said. "The general public is interested in having access to the tech revolution, businesses want to expand their markets, schools are interested in trying to change the way kids are taught. Everyone's awareness is coming together at the same time.

    Experts like Mr Irving estimate that the Internet will be virtually global in five to seven years. But for that to happen infrastructure must be put in place, which means a lot of money - and fast.

    The Net may be the wave of the future but age-old problems still apply.

    Links to more Information rich information poor stories are at the foot of the page.

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