Bridging the Digital Divide: New Route to Development or New Form of Dependency?

By Wade, Robert Hunter | Global Governance, October-December 2002 | Go to article overview

Bridging the Digital Divide: New Route to Development or New Form of Dependency?


Wade, Robert Hunter, Global Governance


The Catholic Church has the practice of appointing a devil's advocate (Advocatus Diaboli) when considering a person for sainthood. The role of the advocate is to ferret Out all the reasons why that person should not be made a saint and present them forcefully in the discussion among the cardinals who make the decision. The current campaign to promote the uptake of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in developing countries and to get aid donors to redirect their aid budgets needs devil's advocates to challenge what John Stuart Mill once called "the deep slumber of a decided opinion."

In the first half of this article, I argue that ICTs are being oversold as the key both to higher efficiency of corporate and public organizations and to stronger responsiveness of government to citizen-customers. ICT tools can help people learn how to absorb knowledge generated elsewhere and combine it with local needs and local knowledge, and they can help raise real economic returns to investments; but they are being touted in the development community as though they can leapfrog over the more familiar development problems. This is like saying that cheap books can cure illiteracy. Once the illiteracy problem is solved (as in Kerala, India), cheap books are a great boon, but giving illiterate people cheap books does not solve illiteracy. My purpose is not to throw out the whole idea of an ICT-for-development campaign but to signal traps that will cause the campaign to lose credibility. By engaging with these issues, ICT proponents can ensure that the ICT fad ends up with benefits greater than resource misal locations, in contrast to some earlier development fads.

In the second half of the article, I suggest that efforts to bridge the digital divide may have the effect of locking developing countries into a new form of dependency on the West. The technologies and "regimes" (international standards governing ICTs) are designed by developed country entities for developed country conditions. As the developing countries participate in ICTs, they become more vulnerable to the increasing complexity of the hardware and software and to the quasimonopolistic power of providers of key ICT services. Worse, the Western aid industry, by linking aid to good governance and good governance to programs to digitalize the public sector ("e-govemance"), may be reinforcing the overall dependency of developing countries. Less developed country (LDC) governments should not take the technologies and international regimes as given. They should press for standards and pricing regimes that make it easier for entities in their countries to access the global information economy. They need more rep resentation in the standard-setting bodies and more support in the ICT domain for the principle that "simple is beautiful."

Beware the Assumption that ICTs Are a Top Development Priority

In taking for granted that "bridging the digital divide" is the central issue of development, literature from the World Bank, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the Group of Seven (G7) governments, and individual academics displays a high aspiration-to-evidence ratio and a disregard of trade-offs between specific ICT investments and alternative investments. The unwillingness to grapple with choices is signaled in the commonly heard refrain, "It is not either/or," meaning that ICT investments do not compete with other investments. A kind of groupthink has emerged such that, in the words of a well-known World Bank ICT expert who has become skeptical of the claims,

People react as though you are mouthing obscenities in St. Peters if you suggest that there might be problems with treating the digital divide as the number one development priority. For that reason, I've been very cautious in sharing my skepticism within the Bank, although I'm trying a process of gentle acclimatization.

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