The ripples from the invention of the Internet in 1989 continue to spread, with industrialized countries at the centre and developing countries at the periphery. But, an information gap remains between the two groups of countries. As a consequence, the term "digital divide" has entered everyday language, describing the disparity between those who have access to the latest information and communication technologies and those who do not. However, it is important to explore the nature of the digital divide and of a social divide within each country between the "information rich" and the "information poor."
As information and communication technologies become inexpensive and pervasive across the world, the question is whether it is the availability of and access to hardware and software, or more about social possibilities and the inclination of societies to engage with these technologies. We are in an emerging internet age in which information equals power. Therefore, societies that do not have access to information and communication technologies suffer a serious setback, compounding the burdens of poverty, disease, debt, and illiteracy. Often, people in those societies do not even have access to a telephone -- their concerns are focused on their next meal.
Of all the developing regions, Africa stands out as the least networked. A history of colonialism, poor physical and human infrastructures, large distances, and the absence of governmental stability in some parts have contributed to delayed socio-economic development and slow introduction of the Internet. One of the biggest deterrents in Africa is the extremely high cost of providing and accessing the Internet which, in turn, has prevented the emergence of sufficient demand to reduce overall cost.1 Not ones to be left behind, many African countries have overcome this obstacle by using mobile phones not only for basic communication, but also for internet usage, health services, and even educational initiatives and programmes.2
If technological diffusion can be achieved, the Internet could provide multiple opportunities for social as well as economic advancement. Rapid internet expansion represents substantial promise for developing nations, which can benefit greatly from the Internet's communication and information delivery capabilities. Electronic networking is a powerful, rapid, and inexpensive way to communicate and exchange information, and it is also crucial to scientific research and development efforts, many of which yield tangible economic benefits.
Access to electronic networks also strengthens the impact of the development community, comprising international agencies and non-governmental organizations working locally and abroad. It is also critical for connecting the world's younger generation on a single platform, such as through social media networks, thus strengthening bonds, the collaboration on ideas, and inter-cultural exchanges. This way, young people from different geographic and economic backgrounds can be brought together to adopt more progressive and productive lines of thought. A solid example of this would be how students who attended the India-Pakistan Youth Peace Conferences have started using digital media to stay connected and have even invited others from their campuses to join the conversations. Access to information affects political democratization efforts at the global level, as well as within countries.3
Due to dominating societal factors, especially in economically disadvantaged regions, the older generation tends to look at the Internet as a negative influence on their cultural fabric, thus preventing it from penetrating their societies. As a first step, they need to be educated about its utility and acquainted with its positive potential. In turn, this will enable the older generation to encourage their children to adapt quickly, learn to use the medium effectively, and gain more global exposure.
A working example of harnessing the power of the Internet in India can be found in an initiative by a private company called e-Choupal. The initiative leverages the Internet to empower small and marginal farmers who constitute the majority of the 75 per cent of the population below the poverty line.4 By providing them with farming expertise and services, as well as timely and relevant weather information, transparent pricing, and access to wider markets, e-Choupal is transforming the way farmers do business and the way rural markets work.
Another revolutionary initiative, the Millennium Development Goals eNabler, was recently launched by the United Nations Global Alliance for Information and Communication Technologies and Development to help reach the UN Millennium Development Goals. eNabler was developed as an online portal where governments of developing countries can access vital information on best practices, information and communication technology solutions, and applications for their health, education, and development needs. eNabler also includes information on effective programme implementation and cost efficiency.
These examples show that the Internet can be used effectively to help bridge not only the developmental divide between the developed and developing countries, but also the social divide within countries, and help to improve the lives of people everywhere.
Notes 1 E. M. K Osiakwan, "Is Africa in a Digital Quagmire?,"
2 D. Smith, "Africa calling: mobile phone usage sees record rise after huge investment,"
3 Dr. S. Madon, "The Internet and Socio-economic development: Exploring the Interaction," (London School of Economics, 2000).