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Last Updated: Tuesday, 2 December, 2003, 10:38 GMT
Viewpoint: 'Time for the real revolution'
By David Dickson
SciDev.Net Director

Much will be heard at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) about the need for the North to help bridge the "digital divide" with the South.

SciDev.Net Director David Dickson
One of the most significant achievements of the WSIS could be an international commitment to significantly increasing the effort dedicated to research on ICTs for the poor
David Dickson
Achieving this, however, will not only mean providing countries in the South with technical means of participating in the international knowledge revolution.

Equally important is creating the conditions and empowering the individuals in such countries in a way that will allow the full potential of information technology to be achieved.

At present, the record is mixed.

There are many success stories, such as the women in a small village in India who gather over a computer terminal each morning, checking out the prices for their farm produce before setting off for market.

Meanwhile, in an African newspaper building, the only terminal remains locked in the editor's office, where no one apart from the editor is allowed to use it.

So, although information and communication technologies (ICTs) have come to play a central - and frequently essential - role in a wide range of development strategies, the link between the potential and the reality remains fragile.

Knowledge as core

For every success story there is also a failure, leading some economists and politicians still to question whether the capital investment required by ICTs has greater value than, say, building new classrooms or hospital facilities.

The challenge is to show both are needed.

Almost every development project can, at least in principle, benefit in some way an ICT input.

For any such project, at its core, involves putting knowledge into practice.

The quicker, cheaper and more efficiently that access to this knowledge can be provided, the more cost-effective the project is likely to be.

In real terms, the cost of using the internet can be hundreds, if not thousands, of times more for an individual in poor country than in a rich one
David Dickson
But ICTs do not offer a technical fix to underdevelopment.

Advanced technology needs a viable environment in which to operate, both at the technical and the human level.

A supporting infrastructure needs to be built-up, and the individuals who will use it need the opportunity - and the incentive - to learn the appropriate skills, and put these skills to the appropriate use.

One key issue is the cost of internet access.

In real terms, the cost of using the internet can be hundreds, if not thousands, of times more for an individual in poor country than in a rich one.

It is tempting to blame this on the policies of governments that continue to regard income from the use of public telephone lines as an important source of revenue, and to suggest that the solution lies in handing such lines to the private sector.

But this does not always work.

In some countries in Africa, for example, privatisation has had little impact, as those who control prices manage to continue to keep them high.

In contrast, in others like Rwanda, enlightened government policies have been sufficient to bring prices down.

Useful and relevant

A second challenge is the need for ICTs tailored to the needs and conditions of the poor in the developing world.

Most personal computers, for example, are built for individuals who are both literate and numerate.

Children in a classroom
Technology needs to be relevant to be useful
Such preconditions can be taken for granted in most developed nations, but they are far from the case in the rest of the world.

Here there are enormous opportunities.

One of the most significant achievements of the WSIS could be an international commitment to significantly increasing the effort dedicated to research on ICTs for the poor.

This could have the same appeal as calls to shift the emphasis of medical research towards often-neglected tropical diseases.

Finally, more effort is needed in providing high-quality content directly relevant to the needs of the developing world.

The great promise of ICT is that it can deliver such information in a timely and efficient manner.

But that is only helpful if useful information is there to be delivered, and presented in a way that allows potential recipients to find it easily.

Much remains to be done here to build user-friendly knowledge-management systems.

The more that the WSIS can boost efforts that point in this direction, the closer to reaching the full potential of ICTs in achieving global development are we likely to get.

For it is only when knowledge is placed directly in the hands of those who stand to benefit from it that the real information revolution will come about.

SciDev.Net provides information about the role of science and technology in meeting the needs of the developing world.



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