Information and communication technology (ICT) can be a major force in helping poor countries reduce poverty, according to a report issued Wednesday by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).

“ICT can make an important development impact because it can overcome barriers of social, economic and geographical isolation, increase access to information and education, and enable poor people to take part in more of the decisions that affect their lives,” the report noted.

However, the digital divide — the gap between those who have access and the ability to use ICT, and those who do not — remains enormous, UNDP reported. For example:

— The total Internet bandwidth in Africa is equal to that in the Brazilian city of Sao Paolo

— The total Internet bandwidth in all of Latin America is equal to that in Seoul, South Korea

— Developed countries (those which belong to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) are home to 80 percent of the world’s Internet users

— As a proportion of monthly income, Internet access in the U.S. is 250 times cheaper than in Nepal, and 50 times cheaper than in Sri Lanka.

— In the U.S., 54.3 per cent of citizens use the Internet, compared to a global average of 6.7 per cent. In the Indian subcontinent, the proportion is 0.4 per cent.

However, the rapid advances of the past few years hold out good promise for the future, the report noted. The number of Internet users will increase from 400 million now to 1 billion in 2005, it predicted.

The report also found that the benefits of widely available ICT extends beyond the economic sphere and into social matters, such as the global e-mail campaign that helped to topple former Philippine President Joseph Estrada, distance learning in Turkey and online job creation in Costa Rica, India and South Africa.

“ICT is truly a breakthrough technology for democracy and the expansion of knowledge for poor people,” the UNDP noted.

Further developments such as low-cost computers and touch-screen input devices designed for illiterate people have great potential for empowering the poor.

But lack of government funding and low market demand have dashed many of the most important technology opportunities for poor people, the report said. It also urged governments and aid donors to regard ICT not as a passing fad but as a key element in helping countries escape the poverty trap.

Further information on the report can be found at