“Information-Haves” vs. “Information-Have-Nots”
Today the internet has become an important space for business, interest articulation, forming of the political will and knowledge sharing. But it looks like only the minority of the global population has access to these new technology-enabled opportunities for participation.
The term “digital divide” describes the divide of those members of society who have access to information and new technology and those without. Access is distributed very unequally around the globe, especially when you compare industrialized and developing countries. For political scientists this digital divide simply represents a new form of the North-South Conflict (Nuscheler 2005: 58)
Unequal access to ICT
The Worldbank describes the unequal internet access with the following categories:
- eLeaders: those countries which are taking the lead in the field of electronic data processing (≈ OECD countries)
- eTigers: those countries which have a good infrastructure and the necessary human capital to make it into the information society
- eLosers: those countries which neither have the infrastructure nor the human capital available
While eTigers such as Brazil, China and India have good chances to overcome the divide, eLosers risk to drop behind more and more. The digital divide carries the danger of intensifying the development differences on the globe. The transition into knowledge economies threatens to exclude eLosers.
And even within industrialized countries, there is a divide between the rural and the urban participation, between men and women, between the financially well-off minority and poorer people, between those who speak foreign languages and those who don’t understand the bulk of information in the internet, with most content being in English.
So the main question remains whether the international and national digital divide is a temporary or a permanent phenomenon, which perpetuates development differences. While some hope that ICT will help to reduce development gaps, the situation currently rather looks more pessimistic. And since access to modern communication technologies becomes more and more a prerequisite for one’s career as well as one’s chances for participation (economically and socially), a permanent exclusion of certain countries or people would pose a threat to the social cohesion of society. (cf. Eckert 2001: 3)
What are the reasons for the digital divide?
- One major factor is the lack of ICT infrastructure. Two billion people are still without electricity (that’s two thirds of the world population!) and since a well functioning telephone net forms the basis for internet connectivity, the exclusion of large parts of the developing world becomes quite obvious.
- Moreover ICT costs are of major importance and very unequal. While people in the US only had to spend 1,2% of their average monthly income for internet costs in 2000, people in Bangladesh would have had to spend 191% of their income and in Madagascar even 614% of their income.
- Also the lack of skilled workers proves as another barrier to ICT access. On top of it, many qualified employees leave those countries to work in industrialized countries (“brain drain”).
While the problem has been recognized and many initiatives have been started, for example the “Digital Opportunity Task Force” of the G-8 and the “Information and Communication Technology Taskforce” of the United Nations, the main challenge remains: creating the right pre-conditions. That is why in 2002 the German Committee of Inquiry on the “Globalization of the Global Economy” called for a fight against illiteracy, the development of human capital and an improved infrastructure of electricity and telephone nets. Only then “inclusion” has a real chance.
Maike Schansker (schansker[at]unu.vie.edu)
UNDP (2001): Human Development Report 2001. Making new technologies work for human development, New York
Eckert, Detlef (2001). Stellungnahme zur öffentlichen Anhörung der Enquete-Kommission „Globalisierung der Weltwirtschaft – Herausforderungen und Antworten“ zum Thema „Chancen und Risiken der Informationsgesellschaft“ am 28.05.01. Berlin: Deutscher Bundestag (Kdrs. 14/10b: 3–6). (in German)
Nuscheler, F. (2005): Entwicklungspolitik, 5. Auflage, Schriftenreihe der Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung, Band 488, Bonn