Reasons to be Cheerful?

Last week on the radio, I heard someone state that there are now more mobile phones on the planet. Wikipedia gives a figure of more than 5bn, but I have yet to find a reasonable source for a 7bn figure. There are many who claim that the PC is dead and the future is mobile. So should we give a cheer and claim that the digital divide is dead and buried?

If in doubt, look at the evidence. UNCTAD has recently produced its "Information Economy Report 2011". Its theme this year is ICT as an enabler for Private Sector Development.

The report is full of detailed statistics, country by country giving fixed lines, mobile usage and internet users among other statistics. Indeed there are reasons to be cheerful in terms of the volume of ICTs now in the developing world.

However, access is only part of the picture. The strength of the report is that it goes beyond the quantitative aspects of the digital inclusion agenda.

There are still many access issues around the world. Globally rural areas are poorly served for infrastructure compared to the urban areas. Personally I have difficulty getting my head around the 5 billion mobile devices figure and the infrastructure available to the approximately 3 billion of the world population who live in rural areas. Aside from that power issues for the infrastructure need to be considered.

However, much more importantly, the challenge the world faces now is the value that developing countries get from their access to ICTs. Each chapter of the report details the challenges in one area of the overall theme, along with policy recommendations.

Briefly, the challenge is to use ICTs to promote sustainable economic growth and the development of a healthy private sector.

To support this there is a challenge to public sector use of ICTs to enable more effective interventions for the common good in areas such as business services.

Last but not least is the usage of ICTs to support female entrepreneurship.

Don’t be put off by the fact that this is a UNCTAD Document. It is full of statistical tables but the narrative is clear and concise, not hidden behind impenetrable jargon.

Good news is hard to find at the moment in many quarters, but there are reasons to be cheerful that ICTs are playing their part in the global development agenda.

The digital divide is far from dead. The problems faced are more subtle,  of a qualitative and value type than quantitative and volume. The availability of services in native languages, the development of home-grown ICT production as opposed to consumption are key to the ambitious policy recommendations.

That said, the challenges of skills development for the digital economy are similar to those faced in Western economies, including the UK.

ICT for Development, ICT4D is not a nice to have, bolt on to wider development programmes such as education, clean water and access to healthcare but an enabler of economic growth to move from aid based to development based agendas.

In the words of a famous saying; “give a man a fish and you feed him for a meal. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”.

Ultimately, eliminating the digital divide is about tackling human capital issues, not just the ICT capital issues.

Progress is happening around the world. I am a strong believer that “The internet is for everyone”. I have nothing but admiration for those who are making it happen.

Seasons greetings.

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About the author
Chris is a technology and policy futurologist. Chris has been in the IT industry since 1980. His roles have spanned Honeywell, ICL, HP, Microsoft and Capgemini. He is a Fellow of the BCS and a Fellow of the RSA.

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