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Wednesday, 30 October, 2002, 11:31 GMT
Can we narrow the digital divide?
Technology is a must for developing nations to help educate citizens, make them healthier and escape poverty, according to the United Nations.
It argues that technology has real potential to help struggling nations, if used in the right way.
But the gap in access to, and use of, the latest information and communication technologies between rich and poor nations is as wide as ever.
It may seem inappropriate to talk of computers and the internet when many people do not even have clean water. But technology can have a direct impact on development.
What can we do to help make information and communication technologies available to all? Tell us if you are involved in a project that is using technology as a tool to fight poverty.
This debate is now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.
Why do we need to close the digital divide, to destroy local cultures due to western influence? Maybe everybody doesn't need to be exactly the same, zombies sitting behind computers. Close the poverty gap, yes but what is this need for computers, they aren't the saviour of the world you know.
Technology is very important and the values added to development are even more so when an economy is a second world or first world. I think that the value added for third world countries, like mine Zambia, is almost negligable. The majority of the people live below the poverty line. The Third world should prioritise inorder for them to tackle the most important issues facing the masses: which are poverty, Aids and lack of economic security.
Over the years, I have seen all sorts of well-meant aid given to African countries without the necessary training and education essential to sustain the new technology, be it tractors or computers, particularly in rural areas. Let's give a sustained aid package, where ongoing support, training and education is put into place.
Let's focus on the UK first. The government needs to mandate broadband roll out throughout the country. There is a growing digital gulf occurring between UK cities and rural communities where access to broadband services is denied by lack of action on the part of government.
Could somebody please explain to me what "to mandate broadband roll out" means? If this is normal English in the modern world, I suspect it's not only the people in developing nations that are going to need help!
The debate on priorities for getting clean water, food, etc. or e-mail, Internet access first of all is obviously misdirected.
Why not look at IT as a possible tool, (amongst many others), to get clean water, better health care, better education, better governance to the people of Africa. Narrowing the digital divide can one be one of those tools for achieving those much-needed outcomes. People in the northern hemisphere think they need to dump food, money, etc. to help the poor. Yet here in the south we want roads, vehicles, to get that urgently needed aid to the people but even more we want education, jobs, political and economic stability for growth and independence from western aid. Yes, as badly as we need roads we also need the information highways to empower people of Africa to build a better future.
I would prefer to narrow the digital divide by chucking out lots of the hi-tech twaddle that is being shoved onto Western society. I'm not sure we need (or even want) all these broadband, multi-functional communication interfaces, but it seems we have very little choice in the matter. Technology is dictating to society, which is barmy.
As a tool to fight ignorance, cultural poverty and violence, computers are clearly useless - there are lots in the US.
Anyone who has visited the far flung reaches of an underdeveloped country and witnessed first hand the hour to hour privations and difficulties suffered by its people, will realise that handing out computers would simply be met with bemused stares. In places that have no electricity and mass illiteracy, one would do far better to turn up with a truckload of groceries. Don't embarrass people who are struggling to survive through each day by trying to teach them IT skills.
There are initiatives that help in bridging the gap between the developed and developing worlds, as far as the digital divide goes, but these initiatives, I feel, tend to concentrate on end-user technologies such as donated PCs. This is a start, but more is needed in the way of infrastructure so these organisations can make use of these PCs.
Chris Cattaway, New Zealand
I'm an Indian expatriate in Rwanda where the use of mobile phones and access to the internet are quite common.
I teach at the Kigali Institute of Science, Technology and Management where all the staff and students have access to the internet. However, I don't know how bridging the digital gap can promote prosperity.
Dave Robertson, UK
I think computer education or appreciation should first be introduced in all local and urban schools. The funding should be a joint effort by the government and the UN.
I grew up in Zambia. There is more than enough potential in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania, Angola and Zaire to build a highly prosperous region that could afford food, water, roads, computers, education and internet access for its people. Unfortunately war, despotism, greed, and corrupt deals with Western banks has meant that this will never happen. Now the whole region is beset by drought, financial collapse and Aids.
Those who believe that the primary concern of Third World countries are food and not digitisation are narrow-minded. Could you imagine the potential of internet in the elimination of middleman exploitation so that a rural farmer in Niger can locate a potential market globally. How about a Zambian boy learning all about HIV preventive measure online?
I have been working for the last year in Mozambique. From my experience, it's not enough for people to have the right equipment. They need strong teaching and coaching. I've found hard working individuals with good motivation and college education. However their technology background and experience is very weak.
There are also other cultural problems derived from the past and especially the war, which will take a long time to mend.
The top management also doesn't want to invest in their workforce's education, with the excuse that when they learn more, they'll leave for better paid jobs.
Rev Paul Bala Samura, Lagos, Nigeria
We can narrow it if developed countries do more than hand out money. Instead of handing out cash how about actually sending in some of your people to implement the programs? Work with the governments asking them what they want to do.
I think new technology is important to developing countries just like the way radio and TV came to Africa. People need to be informed and new media and internet are some of the vital channels that can be used.
Tennyson Aliu, USA
First things first. We cannot close the digital divide when the literacy divide is still an abyss.
It is very simple to bridge the digital divide between rich and poor nations. Do what is necessary to ensure economic and political freedom of the poorer nations so that the people of those nations can have the ability to grow and reach their maximum potential. Oust the dictators and eliminate socialism. The solution is not to simply give poor nations computers today because tomorrow these nations will be in the exact same position when that technology is antiquated.
It is apparent that there is little sympathy or awareness for the problems of developing countries. The cost of one computer is enough to sustain a family for months for the masses of developing nations. Luxuries like electricity, a place to sleep or a table to eat are not common in most of these countries. Add to that, the political instabilities, insurrection, revolution, death from a host of unknown illnesses, make this question somewhat irrelevant, seen from the perspective of the masses.
The concept of the less economically developed world not having adequate access to information technology is important. Although it cannot be necessarily linked to the basic indicators of living standards (for example access to clean water, political rights etc), it is extremely influential in generating a development multiplier effect within a region. In other words, if IT was available to these areas, it would play an important role in creating new industries, jobs etc.
Surely the priorities should be for clean water, a reliable food supply, shelter and a basic education.
What use is internet access in a village with no water? What use half a gigabyte of RAM when the people need food?
Let us focus on what is truly important at this time instead of diverting attention from the real issues with this computers for all nonsense.
Providing computers and internet connectivity to the whole world is clearly part of the North's drive to homogenise all peoples of the planet, to remove remaining cultural and linguistic barriers to "free trade". The internet is the corporations' tool for expanding their corrosive, exploitative and environmentally disastrous activities. Lets not give in to them.
Solomon Ochola, Uganda/ USA
Computers are great learning tools, with or without the internet. As a computer professional I have always a need for people willing to do easy computer work, such as data input. Helping poorer nations get computer - and technology literate greatly improves their chances of being able to earn a better living and improve their lives the way they see fit rather than waiting for aid and dependency on richer nations.
As the webmaster of one of Malawi's top websites, my comment is: The prices of computers remain too high and we Malawians are excluded from many affiliate programmes and memberships because our country doesn't allow credit cards.
Also software piracy is essential as the software companies don't understand that the earnings in our country are a pittance.
The comments here are as diverse and interesting as the arguments around this issue. Indeed developing countries have serious basic needs - but that is no excuse for not accelerating increased access to information. It is this which will allow countries - and more specifically people in countries - to be able to feedback and compete in this fast changing world.
The international organisations and other non-governmental organisations should be involved in projects which empower the people and improve their knowledge, skills and attitudes. Short-term alms giving which leaves people more dependent than before will not help in the long run.
A lot of people have said that technology isn't the answer. And to be honest, it isn't, but it is part of the solution. Getting information on weather, healthcare etc to where it's needed is as vital in Africa as it is in the UK. To that extent, technology doesn't feed people, or clothe them, but it does give them more empowerment in their own environment. It is one of many stepping stones on the way to becoming a developed nation.
David Jephcott, UK
We throw away a lot of working kit, as one of your news items suggested recently. We should be donating it to people who can put it to good use.
Can Africa afford to have 1st World technology at 3rd World prices??? This is the problem that faces many communication companies already set up in Africa. The problem is that the governments want low prices, whereas the companies want a fair price for a fair service.
A classic example of IT supporting change is SDNP - Sustainable Development Network - part of UNDP in Pakistan. A low budget but highly effective one-stop shop for development information. They seem to have taken the route of - identify the information, then provide access to the information rather than just buying lots of computers.
Peter Connolly, England
Technology is not a right. We should focus on feeding people before we worry about whether or not they have the latest PC.
The very poorest countries in the world need low-tech solutions. Hi-tech equipment is too difficult to maintain. I remember talking with a doctor in Kathmandu who showed me lots of hi-tech medical machinery given to them by the Japanese. All of it was broken and they couldn't afford to repair it. The money should have been spent on more useful, serviceable, low tech equipment.
There's worry about proper nations not getting on the web, but here in the UK there are still thousands of people and families who can't afford to do the same either. Maybe charity should start at home before we throw our money at other countries.
Michelle, there have been various initiatives by local councils to provide low-spec-but-good-enough PCs to low income families. The majority of the 50% of people in the UK who are not yet online either choose not to be, or are as yet unaware of the benefits. I would argue that the internet has a larger impact in countries with less educational facilities, so can be used to fill this gap.
Over one million PCs are thrown away in the UK each year, ending up in landfill. The majority of these can easily be refurbished for use in developing countries. Computer Aid International, a UK charity, has sent more than 12,000 PCs to schools in the third world. Their website www.computeraid.org has details about how companies and individuals can donate old PCs.
K Henry, England
In the heyday of computer graphics (in the early 80s) I remember reading an academic article about 'how computer graphics can help the third world'. Well, computer graphics have come and gone and the third world is still coming in third. Now it's 'how digital stuff will help the third world'. Basically we have to realise that the biggest effect in any area is made by investing in the simplest things. If you want to change the third world don't sell them computers, give them fresh water instead. The only trouble is of course that water is not exciting and profitable.
The digital divide is just a manifestation of the wealth/power divide.
Yayah Jason, South Africa
The acquisition of technology in whatever form will always elude those nations where the educational system is neglected, and dishonest practices prevail against righteous commitment to the nation.
The digital divide is a temporary issue and will pass. The price of technology is falling and it is becoming more pervasive. Let's focus on the big issues such as market access and democracy, those are the things that will change the developing world. Let's not get distracted by minutiae.
I think that the problems that currently affect Africa are broad and there is no easy answer. Technology is part of the solution. But with out a basic infrastructure and peace throughout the region what ever is developed will be destroyed by war and discord. Development of the African countries can not come until there is a lasting commitment to peace. Then technology can be safely deployed
What the people of the developing world need most right now is information. Shortwave radios are scarce - most poor people now only have FM and AM on their radios. Let us first find ways to get news & development information via TV and radio to the people first before we worry about e-mail and the internet.
It is of no doubt that digitisation age could benefit the Third World, in a way that nothing else has helped in the past. With the pervasiveness of the internet, could be used to disseminate invaluable information about Aids, malaria etc and provide an alternative method of education, ie digital libraries. But above all, it would enable more affordable prices of communications, such as internet telephony, which is already benefiting a lot of African countries
Bit pointless to talk about digital divide, when so many people around the world have no electricity. There are people in the UK who have no access. Local council initiatives are minimal and can only provide access by taking away money from other things. When people in poorer countries are ready for net access, they will have it. But first other more important aspects of infrastructure need to be in place. The leaders in those countries might want to consider changing their corrupt ways and release all that aid money that has been given for so many years.
Until African child stops going to bed hungry, I would not worry much about our lack of technology
How can giving information technology skills to child in a African village with no computers be of any real use?
Surely good regular education, healthcare, clean water, food and work should be more of a priority? There needs to be peace and security for the people of the whole continent. Development and investment will come with peace and stability.
I should think that people in poorer countries would rather have clean water, shelter and be free of disease than be able to e-mail each other.
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