The Developing Digital Divide

w:Muhammad Yunus, founder of w:Grameen BankAre digital inclusion projects in the developing world booming or are they doomed to failure? That’s the question asked by legal expert Dinusha Mendis of the University of Central Lancashire, Preston, UK.

Mendis has investigated the digital divide in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Nigeria, and how laws such as those governing intellectual property rights and copyright might be acting as a barrier to narrowing the digital divide between the developing world and technologically mature nations.

“It is important to bridge the digital divide so that everyone can have equal rights to development, education, and freedom of expression,” Mendis explains. However, she asks whether developing nations can cope with stringent international laws and so embrace digital technology. Key to success is whether the governments of these countries can create the necessary laws and legal infrastructure to address the issues which arise from digital technology.

The concept of bridging the digital divide is not so much about access to technology, but about the benefits derived from access, explains Mendis. She points out that the divide exists not only between the developed and the developing world but also in many parts of the world between urban and poor rural communities. So, the implications of studying digitisation in developing nations may also have implications for millions of people in the developed world too.

To reap the rewards of making digital technology available to everyone, it is not simply a matter of providing access to gadgets but about empowering people to use the technology productively.

Mendis has investigated the results of three different projects. First, the GrameenPhone project (Bangladesh). GrameenPhone provides 250,000 “village” phones for the use of 148 million people who live in rural communities in Bangladesh. But, more than that, the project acted as the hub for an emerging rural economy. For instance, a poor woman with a bad credit history could borrow money from Grameen Bank to buy a handset and subscribe to cellular service. She could then make money renting out the phone to fellow villagers and extend her business network.

Ultimately, the phone becomes a productivity tool that could do as much to pull people out of poverty as a loan. For example, rather than walk to the next village in search of a doctor, people could call ahead. Instead of going in search of customers, a taxi driver can be called and his business thus expand. “The phone would likely produce more revenue than a cow, bought with a conventional bank loan, which can produce only so much milk,” Mendis explains.

The success of the GrameenPhone concept has now spread to other parts of the developing world, including Kenya and Tanzania, which now have their own rural banking systems based around the cellphone. In Kenya, Safaricom and Vodafone partnered to create the “mobile” banking system M-Pesa. M-Pesa is hugely successful and is now being used by farmers to pay traders as well as being used for paying salaries and bills.

The second scheme is the Internet Radio project in Sri Lanka. The Kothmale Community Radio (KCR) station is located in the central hill region of Sri Lanka and serves a population of about 200,000 people. In essence, the KCR producers trawl the internet for information related to that week’s headlines and translate the information and news into the local languages for daily broadcast. So, how does this bridge the digital divide for the people of Sri Lanka?

The answer lies in the fact that the majority of listeners live in remote parts of the country but have close family members working in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Dubai and elsewhere. With no access to a phone, very limited literacy and a poor postal service even for those who can read and write, members of such rural communities can through the radio project keep abreast of what’s happening in the countries where their relatives live and work. In addition, UNESCO also provided internet access points through the project as well as training in email use, word processing, spreadsheets and other software.

KCR is another first and another success story in narrowing the digital divide between the north and south. The material broadcast on KCR is tailored and is therefore of high relevance to these communities. Similar to the GrameenPhone project, it has kept the concept simple but by marrying the old technology of community radio with that of the internet, rural communities are experiencing and benefiting from connectivity. The KCR connected to the internet, serves as a link.

Finally, the One Laptop Per Child (Nigeria) project has become widely celebrated as a success in bridging the digital divide. Galadima Primary School was the first to receive 300 of these robust XO laptops, which cost just $100 each, and have low-cost satellite internet access via the VSAT system.

A teacher at the school is on record as explaining the benefits and this quote is testament to the impact enabling technology can have: “Before, we felt that we were not very important but now we have the laptop, we feel that we have moved ahead… Not only has it raised the status of the school, she said, but it has also improved learning at school and the surrounding community… The laptop has brought a greater impact to our children. It is easier to give notes and assignments and they learn faster,” the teacher said.

“All three projects based on simple concepts have led by example on how rural communities in the developing world can be digitally included,” says Mendis. “In looking to the future and to a more connected world, the hope is that the north and south will collaborate to bring digital equality for all, whilst also aiming for a safe and secure information society.”

Research Blogging IconDinusha Mendis (2009). Bridging the digital divide: booming or doomed? A study of digital inclusion projects in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nigeria International Journal of Private Law, 2 (4), 371-384 DOI: 10.1504/IJPL.2009.024478