“In Colombia, everything is a challenge,” explained the tired-looking mother of two as she waited at an Internet café an hour outside of Bogotá, Colombia. “To have a home, children, study, good food. It’s hard to get everything for them that they want.”
This woman, 28 years old, had traveled from the farm where she works milking cows to the nearest town with an Internet café in order to have the local staff type and print an official document for the sale of several cows. She is, in many respects, the epitome of what international development agencies and policymakers envision when they build Internet cafés throughout the developing world: a low-income head of family with limited education, heavy domestic responsibilities, and no access to a computer or Internet at home. Like many in the developing world, she stands to gain a great deal from the connectivity and access to information and opportunities that technology can offer.
World leaders including former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan have exalted the potential of information and communication technologies (ICTs) to “help build digital bridges to the billions of people who are now trapped in extreme poverty, untouched by the digital revolution and beyond the reach of the global economy.”[i] According to Annan, “One of the most pressing challenges in the new century is to harness this extraordinary force, spread it throughout the world, and make its benefits accessible and meaningful for all humanity, in particular the poor.”
Annan issued these statements in 2001, at the launch of the United Nations Information and Communication Technologies Task Force. As Annan was creating the UN ICT Task Force, enthusiasm for using ICTs such as mobile phones, computers and the Internet for development purposes was taking off worldwide.[ii] In July 2000, at the 28th G8 summit in Okinawa, Japan, leaders from Canada, the European Commission, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States issued the Okinawa Charter on the Global Information Society, declaring that “everyone, everywhere should be enabled to participate in and no one should be excluded from the benefits of the global information society.”[iii]
Like the UN, the G8 recognized the potential revolutionary impact of ICTs for development.[iv] The Okinawa Charter states that “countries that succeed in harnessing its potential can look forward to leapfrogging conventional obstacles of infrastructural development, to meeting more effectively their vital development goals, such as poverty reduction, health, sanitation, and education, and to benefiting from the rapid growth of global e-commerce.”[v]
In their book ICT4D Information Communication Technology for Development, Parveen Pannu and Yuki Azaad Tomar summarize the revolutionary potential of ICTs in the following ways:
- in their capacities to instantaneously connect vast networks of individuals and organizations across great geographic distances at a very little cost,
- as key enablers of globalization, facilitating worldwide flow of information, capital, ideas, people and products,
- transforming business, markets and organizations,
- revolutionizing learning and knowledge-sharing.
- empowering citizens and communities, and
- creating significant economic growth in many countries.[vi]
Recognizing a Digital Divide
In addition to their revolutionary potential, the G8 and the UN also recognized ICTs’ potential danger to generate a “digital divide,” a term first coined in 1995 by the United States Department of Commerce to describe the gap between those who have access to ICTs and the skills to use them, and those who do not.[vii]
With the introduction of the Internet, computers, mobile phones and other digital tools, “a new form of inequality is added to all the existing forms of discrimination: an inequality in the power to communicate and to process information digitally.”[viii]
In short, unequal access to ICT tools and networks among and within countries helps some individuals move forward into the digital age, leaving others even further behind. Researchers have noted that “distributing ICT without looking at inequality is a way to reinforce that inequality. ICT has such potential to empower its users that this uneven distribution of resources to get connected is very likely to increase inequality and to embed itself in the future.”[ix]
This uneven access to ICTs often reflects and exacerbates existing inequalities along racial, class, gender, and other dimensions,[x] and research has shown that ICT adoption patterns “are characterized by the same long established determinants of inequality as other aspects of social life, such as those related to income, education, skills, employment, geography, age and ethnicity, and gender, among others.”[xi]
[i] United Nations, 2001.
[ii] Pannu & Tomar, 2010, Page 5.
[iii] Office of International Information Programs, 2000.
[iv] Office of International Information Programs, 2000.
[v] Office of International Information Programs, 2000.
[vi] Pannu & Tomar, 2010. Page 5.
[vii] Ohashi, 2009.
[viii] Hilbert, 2011, page 4.
[ix] Buskens, 2011, page 72, quoting Sutton and Pollock.
[x] United Nations Development Programme, 2001.
[xi] Hilbert, 2011, page 5.