Beware the Digital Subdivide

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Benjamin Huffman
United Nations Centre for Regional Development

The deployment of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) in decreasing the vulnerabilities of the poor is at the forefront of many Developing Economies. This is not to say that basic needs such as food, water, and shelter are to be abandoned; it only implies that ICTs are a vehicle for development, by which, basic needs can be improved.


Developing Countries, or more appropriately speaking, Developing Economies are as energized about Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), as their more affluent brethren. Many Developing Economies are eager to utilize the potentials of ICTs to better the lives of their citizens and to bring about economic, informational, and governmental transparencies. In most cases, technology for development is still only affecting 70-80 percent of the people under the poverty line; however, the bottom 20-30 percent are still not benefiting from the advances in ICT. Not until recently have technologies been developed specifically aimed at the most vulnerable poor. When speaking of the digital divide, unless the weakest of the weak (or the bottom n percent) are included in the solution, the digital divide will become a digital hole where the bottom n percent are destined to remain.


ICTs for regional development must fulfill four key requirements. First, the technology needs to be obtainable at a relatively low cost; second, the technology must become self-sustainable; third, users must have faith in the technology being provided; and lastly, the information must be immediately relevant to the users. Unless all four requirements are met, "lasting" constructive impacts on the most vulnerable will not be achieved.

ICT must meet the demands of the users. Technology is inherently supply driven. Advances in technologies have been brought about by goals that are not applicable to the needs of the most vulnerable. In order for the weakest to benefit from ICTs, technologies for development must become more demand driven. Communication channels must be able to reach the most isolated areas. In addition, terrain and the high cost of cable eliminate any possibility of linking remote areas to information; however, though the use of ICTs, information can now be transmitted via wireless communications. Nevertheless, cost must be within the sphere of attainability for even the poor.

In order for ICT to become viable for a developing economy, technology must become self-sustainable. This means, cost recovery must be achievable and management of the technologies must be transferable.

Traditionally in developing economies, the weakest and most vulnerable are isolated in villages and are not conscious to the technologies of the day. In fact, most potential beneficiaries would not use the technologies, even if they were offered freely. There must be a sense of trust between the users and the producers of the ICTs. Technology is often seen as intimidating, even in developed economies. Therefore, exposure, training, and close relationships are key ingredients for promoting ICTs. Information pertinent to the users may often be private or personal (i.e. government documents, government programmes, financial loans, etc.). It may also be crucial to the user (i.e. heath care, weather reports, etc.). Trust must be built up in order for users to accept the new technologies.

Information must be relevant to the individuals using the technology. In addition, the information must be comprehensible to the users. Relevant information that cannot be read is of no use to an illiterate person. When dealing with developing economies illiteracy is as prominent an issue as access to technology. Setting up network architectures and communications infrastructures takes both time and money; nevertheless, many times the user interface, which is one of the most significant ingredients, gets overlooked.


In order to initiate a successful regional development ICT program aimed at every citizen in a developing economy, all of the above-mentioned requirements must be met. Without any of these four key requirements, the digital divide will remain a digital hole for the n percent that fall below numerous regional development programmes:

1) Developing Economies have the advantage of bypassing the high costs of conventional communication infrastructures through the use of ICTs. Instead of laying expensive copper wires, wireless technologies such as: VSAT (Vary Small Aperture Terminals) or VHF (radio) transmissions can handle the job at a substantially lower cost.

2) Government programmes and NGO that finance ICT projects will not produce lasting benefits unless the projects themselves become self-stainable. Citizens must become owners of the technology. Information and content should be demand based and owners must be able to recover their costs. Training and maintenance should be introduced at the outset.

3) Technology can be intimidating to individuals that are not familiar to using it. Trust needs to be established between the intermediaries and the users of the technologies. In order to establish trust, users must see the technology as a benefit. The role of the intermediary is to facilitate the users needs and to act as an authority, thus emanating an image of credibility. Faith and trust can be more easily obtained if the intermediary is someone within the circle of users (i.e. a community leader, local villager, or a popular figure).

4) For the ICT to be successful, information must be easy to obtain. To expand the ICT more quickly, information must also be timely and relevant. Additionally, information must be presented in a way users can understand (i.e. local language, audio and video for the illiterate, culturally sensitive, etc.).

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