Commentary: Don't ignore the global digital divide

World Economic Forum leader Klaus Schwab says lack of access to digital technology will deny a majority of the world's population from participating in the new economy of the 21st century.

It's clear that a divide exists between those who have access to electricity and those who do not. A similar divide exists between those who have access to a telephone and those who do not. And a divide exists between those who have access to a broadband connection to the Internet and those who do not.

But most of us would agree that electricity and telephone services, access to clean drinking water and adequate healthcare and a long list of other necessities, are certainly more important than broadband access. So why, then, should governments, social planners and economists show more than a passing interest in the "digital divide?"

Our basic and guaranteed rights as individuals, according to democratic principles, provide for equal rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Are electricity and telephone services basic rights? Is broadband access a basic right?

Michael Powell, the new chairman of the US Federal Communications Commission, thinks the whole issue of the digital divide has been overplayed. "I think the term [digital divide] sometimes is dangerous in the sense that it suggests that the minute a new and innovative technology is introduced in the market, there is a divide unless it is equitably distributed among every part of the society, and that is just an unreal understanding of an American capitalist system…

I think there's a Mercedes divide, I'd like one, but I can't afford it...I'm not meaning to be completely flip about this--I think it is an important social issue--but it shouldn't be used to justify the notion of, essentially, the socialization of deployment of the infrastructure."

I think Mr Powell's comments miss the point.

Digital technology is not a luxury item like a Mercedes Benz. It is, instead, the key that opens the door to the knowledge economy. And if we fail to provide access to digital technology to countries in the developing world we are, essentially, denying them an opportunity to participate in the new economy of the 21st century.

It's important to remember that while "bridging the digital divide" may not mean guaranteeing equal access to every new technological development, it should mean more than just bringing Internet connectivity to a few carefully selected classrooms.

The key point is that the global effort underway among governments, businesses, academia and the philanthropic community to bridge the digital divide isn't about distributing sophisticated technology to the undeserving, it's about how to expand access to information and communication technologies to promote social and economic development.

New technologies offer opportunities for empowerment to individuals and communities. Street children in the favelas in Brazil can acquire literacy and citizen awareness, not to mention IT skills, if they are introduced to computers. Indian rural communities can secure documentation of land rights on Internet kiosks. And crucial public health and environmental information can be provided to villages in Costa Rica through a network of community tele-centers.

But while technology may offer a wealth of possibilities, it is the individuals behind the technology that provide the invigorating push for new answers to traditional social and economic questions.

Entrepreneurs are the catalytic force for innovation and growth in a market-based economy and entrepreneurship is, in my view, the necessary ingredient if we are to bridge the digital divide. Entrepreneurs are change experts, and they understand better than others how technological change can be applied to redefine how we view our world.

The energy and innovation brought to the table by the new generation of entrepreneurs is redefining how we work together to solve the social questions that face us.

Martin Varsavsky, president and founder of Jazztel Telecom, provides an inspirational and instructive example of the way entrepreneurial activity can change lives. In partnership with the government of Argentina, Varsavsky created Educ.ar, a national education portal for the country’s public school system.

Today Educ.ar provides school children and teachers in Argentina's 40,000 schools with Internet access that assists learning and broadens horizons. Varsavsky's entrepreneurial efforts are revolutionizing information technology in Latin America.

But there is more to do.

If we are ever to bridge the digital divide and open the knowledge economy to people in the developing world, entrepreneurs worldwide will need to spread the "entrepreneurial gospel". They will need to join with others to promote entrepreneurship and they will need to serve as role models and mentors for those creating new enterprises.

Entrepreneurs can also help identify sustainable, wealth-generating opportunities in disadvantaged areas, and they can apply business innovation to critical challenges like literacy and healthcare. Finally, entrepreneurs can and must support education and training initiatives in schools and communities.

So when we talk about information and communication technologies as tools to realize "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness", I see a tremendous opportunity for entrepreneurs. The digital divide may be difficult to bridge, but opportunities to apply new technologies for economic development and social good continue to grow.

Klaus Schwab is the founder and president of the World Economic Forum, a not-for-profit Foundation in Geneva, Switzerland, which he created in 1971.

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