The Digital Divide Goes Global

At first glance, Japan seems an unlikely candidate to lead an effort to close the "global digital divide." So what do the Japanese know that the rest of the world doesn't?
by John R. Malott

John R. Malott was a noted "Japan Hand" during three decades of service as a U.S. diplomat. He now resides in Southern California and can be reached at

When the leaders of the world's advanced industrialized nations gathered in Okinawa on July 21 to 23 for the annual G-8 Summit, they discussed how half the world is missing out on the benefits of the information technology (IT) revolution. As the meeting drew to a close, they issued a comprehensive declaration aimed at promoting IT around the world.

The debate over the digital divide has gone global, and it's Japan, usually considered an Internet laggard, that did it. The late Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi put the topic on the Summit's agenda, and Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori followed through. The Japanese press says that to prepare for the G-8 discussion, Prime Minister Mori even sat down at a computer for the first time, touched a mouse, and sent an email.

So just what lies behind the so-called digital divide, anyhow?

Because the discussion began in the United States, most thinking before Okinawa reflected the situation in that country. Simply put, goes the American argument, society is being split into technological have's and have-not's, determined primarily by income. And indeed, there is clear evidence in the US that low-income families are less likely to have access to personal computers and the Internet.

It is not lack of access to the Internet that is holding back development in Africa, India, and elsewhere in the world.

A second reason for the digital gap in America is lack of knowledge of these new technologies. Regardless of income, many people find it difficult to understand and use computers, and some feel no need to try.

At first glance, the Internet statistics from the developing world would indicate that income levels are the cause of the digital gap. India is turning into a high tech powerhouse, but only 5 percent of Indian children have ever touched a computer. The United Nations Development Program says that Sub-Saharan Africa has nearly 10 percent of the world's population, but only 0.1 percent of the world's Internet connectivity. That's a 100:1 ratio.

World Bank Group President James D. Wolfensohn says, "The digital divide is one of the greatest impediments to development."

Actually, Mr. Wolfensohn has it backwards. It is not lack of access to the Internet that is holding back development in Africa, India, and elsewhere in the world. Rather, it is development that is holding back the spread of the Internet, and there are a lot of things holding back development. Access to the information technology is but one.

And that is what the Japanese seem to understand.

Without broader development and the policies that promote it, it is naïve to believe that global chat rooms will lead to women's empowerment, that financial Web sites can provide micro-credit to rural cooperatives, or that third-world companies can find world markets via ecommerce.

Think of what we take for granted in the American IT revolution: a vast and reliable infrastructure for telecommunications and electric power; government policies that promote deregulation and private sector initiative; intense competition among companies in prices, products and services; a high literacy rate; Internet content that is relevant to Americans' needs and interests; and finally, English, the language of most of the pages on the Web.

Now look at the rest of the world. There is only one telephone for every ten people in South America, compared to seven for every ten in North America. Literacy is 19.2 percent in Burkina Faso and 27.5 percent in Nepal, compared to 99 percent in Japan. It takes electricity to power a computer, money to buy one, and knowledge to operate one.

Local governments establish barriers as well.

Twenty governments around the world -- the "usual suspects" such as North Korea, Iraq, and Cuba -- do not permit their citizens access to the Internet, according to a study by Freedom House, a human rights organization based in New York. In Myanmar, anyone who owns a computer must report that fact to the Government or face a 15-year prison term. Others, such as China, run their own official Internet service providers and filter out whatever they consider offensive content.

Many governments treat computers like luxury goods and impose high tariffs on them. Others maintain investment restrictions that keep out foreign IT companies and their expertise.

The dream of a wired world is a noble one. But achieving it requires realism, not romanticism. That's what the Japanese understand.

So it's naïve to believe that simply providing a computer, software, and an Internet connection will lead to development. It will take a lot more.

For countries to take advantage of the IT revolution and close the digital divide requires a reliable telecommunications and power infrastructure. It requires capital and an openness to foreign investment. It requires literacy. It requires content worth reading, written in your own language. It requires spreading basic knowledge of computers through the education system. It requires computer engineers and skilled IT professionals. It requires the right government policies, deregulation and competition, and good governance. It requires time. And yes, it requires higher income levels in the developing world.

The dream of a wired world is a noble one. But achieving it requires realism, not romanticism. Those who want to close the global digital divide should be among the strongest supporters of global development and the policies and organizations that promote it.

That's what the Japanese understand. Before the Okinawa meeting, the Japanese government indicated that it would provide $15 billion in economic assistance over the next five years to promote information technology.

And where is most of it going? Into electric power generation and telecommunications infrastructure. Into training and education. Into many of the mundane but important things that over time will help close the global digital divide.

It's easy to say that this aid will help Japanese companies as much as it does the recipients. For sure it will be Japan's giants that get most of the contracts to build the power plants and lay the fiber-optic cable. Japan's companies are leaders in telecommunications equipment and wireless technology, and using public money is a good way to expand their reach around the world.

The Japanese government will provide $15 billion in economic assistance over the next five years to promote information technology.

Experts in Japanese aid would say also that most of this $15 billion is not new money. It's basically a repackaging of existing programs under a new name -- information technology. After all, the electricity from the power plants that Japanese companies build will be used for a multitude of purposes and not just for running PCs, as will the telecommunications systems they help finance and build.

It also remains to be seen whether Japan will push other countries in the policy areas that will promote Internet growth, such as deregulation, opening foreign investment, and good governance (that's a euphemism for combating corruption and supporting freedom of expression). To avoid being criticized, Japan traditionally has left this kind of "heavy lifting" to others.

But the Japanese have done the world a favor by broadening the discussion of the digital divide and reminding all of us of the importance of supporting economic development around the globe. It's more than a moral imperative -- it's good business.