Perhaps the biggest challenge to harnessing technology for economic development is addressing the digital divide. How can we do so? This is a big question and to answer it comprehensively by looking at all the work on this area is beyond the scope of this blog. However let’s look at a few obvious ways of overcoming the digital divide:
(1) Development projects that focus on, and are relevant to the poor. The Monitoring of Integrated Farm Household Analysis Project (IFHAP) was conducted every five years from 1996 to 2007 in the thirty-three (33) major rice- producing provinces in the Philippines. The study noted the potential of mobile phones as key tool for information dissemination in agriculture as they are widely owned. In 2007, 90% of the farm households surveyed owned at least one mobile phone. I agree with the authors of this study  that while policy, infrastructure, and digital divide do indeed aid in assessing readiness; a social dimension is also present, which we ignore at our own peril.One reason for the success of the M-Pesa, a mobile-phone based money transfer service in Kenya, was that it was immediately relevant to the users of the service who wanted to complete basic banking transactions without the need to visit a bank branch
In another example, at an IFAD conference, keynote speaker Gumucio-Dagron stressed that for ICTs to contribute to the development of the rural poor, certain conditions have to be met that relate to :
- ownership and appropriation of the communication process
- development of local content
- language and cultural pertinence
- convergence and networking
- appropriate technology
(2) Make mobile technology a vital part of any ICT project. In Uganda , a combination of mobile phones and radio has enabled the population to participate in phone-in programs “over important issues in the country, that include political debates, health issues, agriculture, education, environment and gender issues, which have a high impact on their lives”. Many women in various parts of Uganda have invested in village phones to earn income “by selling communication time to people in their communities, conduct business transactions, communicating with friends, participating in phone-in radio shows, checking prices of agricultural goods, and as money transfer tool using text messaging.”
(3) Include the disabled in technology projects. A consultative UNESCO group on disabilities and ICTs recommends :
- Maximising accessibility features in mainstream ICTs
- Empowering students to help themselves
- Removing attitudinal barriers
- Supporting teachers, students and their families in using technology for learning through developing local teams and networks of expertise in accessible ICTs
- Developing national and regional policies and school-level accessibility ICTs plans
- Developing and collating resources on the attitudes, skill and knowledge required by teachers
The World Bank has been active in the mobile arena, and is one of the biggest influencers on the subject, in the social media sphere (see below).
Data: For the sake of simplicity, let’s look just at the data in the US. PEW released a new report , “Digital differences,” that takes a look at differences in digital access across different demographic groups.
A few of their main findings include:
- One in five American adults does not use the internet. Senior citizens, those who prefer to take our interviews in Spanish rather than English, adults with less than a high school education, and those living in households earning less than $30,000 per year are the least likely adults to have internet access.
- Among adults who do not use the internet, almost half have said that the main reason they don’t go online is because they don’t think the internet is relevant to them. Most have never used the internet before, and don’t have anyone in their household who does.
- The 27% of adults living with disability in the U.S. today are significantly less likely than adults without a disability to go online (54% vs. 81%). Furthermore, 2% of adults have a disability or illness that makes it more difficult or impossible for them to use the internet at all.
- The rise of mobile is changing the story. Groups that have traditionally been on the other side of the digital divide in basic internet access are using wireless connections to go online. Among smartphone owners, young adults, minorities, those with no college experience, and those with lower household income levels are more likely than other groups to say that their phone is their main source of internet access.
The effective use of ICT to transform economic development may indeed be the imperative of the day. However not addressing the digital divide first is unwise. Including mobile access in ICT projects, focusing ICT projects on the poor and making it relevant to their daily lives and including the disabled are some ways development specialists can do so.
Photo Credit: Lennon Ying-Dah Wong  (on Flickr)