The Digital Divide

The phrase has been circulating for at least a decade now. Once Internet access became widespread in developed countries, concerns about a “digital divide” emerged. Some talked about the “fast world” and the “slow world,” with regard to information flows. Over the past decade, this divide has narrowed sharply, at least in terms of basic access to the Web. (A newer version of the digital divide is concerned with the speed of connections.) The World Bank reports that the percentage of the world’s people with access to the Internet increased three-fold over the period 2002-2010, from 10 to 30 percent.

Access rates in developed regions – typically exceeding 70 percent – do still skew the global average. Even so, growth in Internet access is mostly occurring in developing countries. Nigeria, for example, experienced a four-fold increase in access in just three years (over 2007-2010). Nigeria’s rate (28%) is now comparable to the world average, with obvious implications for society, economy, and politics. Kenya, the world’s leader in mobile money usage, experienced a three-fold jump over the same three-year period (for a rate of 26%). Other key developing countries like Vietnam and the Philippines have experienced similar surges in information access.

Yet, the digital divide persists. Even a casual glance at the World Bank data indicates very uneven growth in access to the Internet. At the very low end of access, a few dozen countries have only tiny proportions of their societies online. In places like Bangladesh, Cambodia, Papua New Guinea, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, less than five percent of the population has access to the Web. In Ethiopia (with 90 million people) and the DRC (with 70 million people), fewer than one percent of the population has access to the Internet.

ICTs (information and communications technologies) are not the panacea for economic development that some claim. As Padraig Carmody (of Trinity College Dublin) has argued, low-income households sometimes spend too much of their budgets on information access through a kind of conspicuous consumption. And better access to information is no guarantee of better job prospects for all.

Even so, it is striking that some low-income countries are surging ahead in this area. And it should come as no surprise that a supportive governance environment is a key to this progress. Some authoritarian regimes (notably North Korea) still greatly restrict access to information. Even in more democratic contexts, legal and bureaucratic obstacles can limit growth in mobile phone usage and telecommunications investment. Nigeria, for example, went through a dramatic period of liberalization in the 2000s, which has led to its remarkable rise in Internet access. As just one indicator of this growth, a significant minority of this blog’s readers reside in Nigeria.

*** Did you like what you read here? You might be interested in the new book by this blog’s author, Failed States: Realities, Risks, and Responses.