Bridging the Digital Divide: Non traditional alternatives

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The recent news from the World Economic Forum held in Davos was encouraging. Computer giant Microsoft has signed a one billion dollar agreement with UNDP. This five-year plan is aimed at bridging the digital divide in developing countries, starting with Egypt , Morocco and Mozambique .

While long over do, such corporate responsibility is highly welcomed.

Bridging the digital divide in developing countries is highly desirable, but in order to be effective much more is needed than setting up computer centers in remote areas. For the amount of money to be spent, simply setting up ICT centers will require high capital costs and would have insignificant long term effects. Costs will include real estate purchase or rental, equipment purchase and recurring administrative costs for technical and administrative staff. There is little proof that such centers can lead to a significant rise in computer or internet literacy or that they can ever become sustainable. Instead a major annual cost will have to be born by the host countries long after UNDP and Mr. Gate’s company leave town.

While in some cases ICT centers might be the answer, a more interesting idea would be to spend the money to create Internet literacy at a much wider scale. This can be done by supporting hitherto unnoticed phenomena in developing countries. Inexpensive and accessible Internet cafes can today be found in every corner of the world. In one street alone in the Jordanian northern city of Irbid a world record of 130 cafes exist. These well attended Internet cafes, often created by young entrepreneurs can be more cost effective than the traditional system of creating ICT centers. Their private nature lends them to longer hours and the public at-large will be less worried about governmental supervision than they would in government-run computer centers. As indigenous parts of their own communities these internet cafes can easily adopt to the local and cultural needs of their own society.

In order to create wide spread internet literacy and pave the way towards e-government, developing countries need to have many much more Internet users than the present. This increase needs not to be quantitative but qualitative. Women, minorities, farmers and individuals with physical need to be included in any Internet literacy drive.

To accomplish such idea, a voucher system can be used. Individuals will use authorized vouchers to redeem time at Internet cafes nearest to their homes. Such a voucher system could be sponsored by local and international companies and agencies and will drive prices at Internet cafes even lower than they are today. They will also encourage even more Internet café owners to establish or widen their existing centers. Except for the costs of the vouchers, this idea can be carried out without any long term costs to local or national governments or international agencies. The idea of the vouchers will be only as a primer or catalyst. A simple on line tutorial can be made available to train newcomers on the basics of Internet use. Once internet literate, most people will continue to use the Internet on their own.

Obviously creating such a voucher system will need monitoring and control. Distributing vouchers without regulation or control could mean that some of the same young people using the Internet cafes will continue to do that, chatting, following the scores of their favorite sports team or viewing indecent web sites. Instead these vouchers can be given to NGOs to distribute among their members on the basis of clear guidelines and criteria. Again this would encourage and empower NGOs and use them in this important computer/internet literacy battle. In almost every town village or district one can find a woman’s NGO, a farming cooperative, sports club or a labor union that would happily agree to be involved in such a distribution plan of vouchers for Internet cafes.

Finally bridging the digital divide can never happen unless local and international institutions, both governmental and non governmental put more time and money into creating content on the Internet.

As the most recent UN Human development report shows, the knowledge deficit in the Arab region is at a dangerously low standing. While filling this knowledge vacuum in print material will take a lot of time and resources, a much faster way to do that can be done through electronic publishing. Again there is much to be done in this area. While widely available in English, something as simple as e book conversion software for Arabic text is still unavailable. In a region that still witnesses traditional book censors, this seems like the simplest idea to bypass authorities that are still trying to control idea and thoughts. A tiny fraction of Microsoft’s billion dollars can do wonders in creating a real information revolution in the Arab region by posting important and useful content in Arabic and other non English languages on the Net.

Bridging the digital divide can be done in many ways and forms. Hopefully those interested in this important venture will consider alternatives and complimentary idea to the traditional form of creating ICT centers. This can be done in a more effective use of resources and much more emphasis on content than on hardware.

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