What Is a Digital Divide and How Do You Close It?

What Is a Digital Divide and How Do You Close It?

Information and Communication Technologies, Poverty and Development: Learning from Experience.

Excerpted from the infoDev publication, Information and Communication Technologies, Poverty and Development: Learning from Experience.

In the past several years, considerable effort has gone into defining and measuring the digital divide both within and between countries. Despite the continued popularity of attention-grabbing (and often misleading) crude measures (such as the recurrent slogan that “half the world has never made a phone call”), the definition of the digital divide has grown more nuanced over time, to include:

  • Differences in access, in sustained and affordable form, to the range of ICTs from landline phones, radio and TV to the nternet, mobile phones, satellites services, etc.
  • Different levels of development of the underlying infrastructure that enables access to, and networking of, these ICTs.
  • Different levels of capacity to use meaningfully the applications enabled by these ICTs and the content they contain.

Our ability to measure the divide, and its change over time, has improved as well, although detailed and disaggregated data on the situation in poor countries — and especially in poor communities in those countries — are still uneven.

Yet, however well we can define and measure it, what is the relevance of the digital divide? The focus of much international effort in recent years has been on narrowing, bridging or closing that divide. Yet these efforts have been rooted in the (often-unexamined) assumption that the digital divide is not only a reflection of deeper issues of poverty and underdevelopment, but a potentially significant causal factor in perpetuating them. Therefore the assumption has often been that closing the divide will have a direct impact on these underlying problems of poverty. Is the digital divide an indicator or poverty or a cause of poverty, or both?

Prior experience with poverty indicators can give us a framework for thinking more critically about the concept of the digital divide. To take a simple example, income poverty is a significant indicator of poverty more broadly, though its relative weight in poverty analysis, and its priority as a target for remedies, is still disputed. We can measure income poverty reasonably well, and it is clearly something that we want to reduce. Yet we distinguish between the desired result (increased incomes for the poor), the changes necessary to achieve that result (more economic opportunities for the poor, sustainable economic growth, reduced vulnerability, increased capacities, etc.) and the course of action necessary to effect those changes (a mix of policies and resources specific to the circumstances of a given country).

In much current discourse on the digital divide, however, we tend to blur these distinctions.

 


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