G8 leaders endorse digital divide action plan

At the Group of Eight (G8) economic summit in Genoa, Italy, over the weekend, leaders of the world’s seven richest nations and Russia endorsed an action plan designed to help bridge the growing “digital divide” both within and between nations.

G8 leaders gave their backing to the final report of the Digital Opportunity Task Force (dot.force), a group composed of G8 governments, international organizations and non-profit groups that was created after last year’s G8 summit in Okinawa, Japan, and endorsed the creation of an international panel of experts that will advise developing nations on IT-related policies and strategies.

The report highlighted the important role that information and communication technology can play in increasing the growth rate of developing nations. It spelled out further steps to be taken in the “Genoa Plan of Action,” a blueprint for ongoing action under the auspices of the G8 intended to help developing nations benefit from information technology.

“(Information and communication technology) holds tremendous potential for helping developing countries accelerate growth, raise standards of living and meet other development priorities,” G8 leaders said in a communique issued at the summit.

At its heart, the plan calls for the creation of national information technology strategies by Third World nations. These “e-strategies” will form the framework for policies to promote the IT development of each nation, including competition and electronic government initiatives. Most importantly, the strategies are to be formulated by interested parties within the countries themselves. The action plan stresses this last point as a way of developing a sense of ownership of the e-strategies by the countries involved.

Although the idea is to push groups within the respective countries to develop their own plans, the international community will have a panel of IT experts available to provide advice when requested.

The experts will be part of an “international e-development resource network” that will be created by January 2002 and is to be made up of members from public, private and non-profit organizations, according to the action plan. Such a structure “presents a unique formula for ensuring that digital technologies meet development needs,” the communique said.

The report also stresses the importance of better connectivity within developing nations, through competing access technologies, and increased access at lower costs through initiatives such as public access points in places such as post offices and libraries. The need to spread information technology to rural areas was also noted, so that a digital divide within the country would not be opened up just as an international divide was closing.

Getting people the skills they need to make use of new technology was also recognized, through a call to create training programs and to get computers and Internet access into schools. The action plan also called for support in getting developing nations involved with international standards and IT policy-setting bodies, and in the promotion of IT in the global fight against AIDS and other infectious diseases.

The plan also called for more prominence to be given to IT-related issues in G8 and other official development assistance (ODA) initiatives. At present, IT commonly plays a supporting role in aid initiatives but is not usually the prime focus of any programs. The plan promotes the use of IT as a “strategic, cross-cutting theme in development efforts.”

The plan adopted by the G8 is largely unchanged from a draft copy obtained by IDG News Service in May.

The G8 leaders pledged continued support for the initiative but specified no concrete goals to be met.

“We will continue to support the process and encourage all stakeholders to demonstrate ownership, to mobilize expertise and resources and to build on this successful cooperation. We will review the implementation of the Genoa Plan of Action at our next Summit on the basis of a report by the G8 Presidency,” the communique said. “We also encourage development of an Action Plan on how e-Government can strengthen democracy and the rule of law by empowering citizens and making the provision of essential government services more efficient.”