Mobile gap closes, but digital divide grows in South Africa

Ottawa-basedInternational Development Research Centre (IDRC) and Randy Spence are gatheringNobel prize-winning economists and poverty experts from around the world todiscuss how information and communication technology (ICT) can reduce povertyin developing countries.

HarvardForum II, scheduled to run at the BerkmanCenter for Internet and Society at Harvard University on Sept. 23 and 24, willre-visit the issues raised at the original forum that IDRC hosted in 2003.

“Someof the things that might have seemed far-fetched six years ago seem verypossible, so it becomes even more important to re-visit some of the keyrecommendations and priorities that were set,” Laurent Elder, program leaderfor Pan Asian Networking at IDRC.

One ofthe most significant changes, according to Elder, was the explosion of themobile phone market. Mobile phones, which were not widely available in most ofthe developing world, have “permeated every segment of society” and this has“completely changed the game with regard to ICTs and development,” he said.

“Sixyears ago, Mohammad Yunus said if you want to get somebody out of poverty, justgive them a mobile phone. It was incredibly prescient,” said Elder.

Thelack of understanding how ICT could actually have an impact on poverty was whatinspired the creation of the first Harvard Forum, said Elder.

Therewere general discussions on how ICT could promote economic growth and macroissues such as improving productivity, but whether ICT could actually go downto the grass roots level and actually impact a poor rural farmer in say Kenya or India wasn’t clear, he said.

Theforum will also address areas such as whether open source technologies, openaccess and open data make a difference in development.

“Weare also interested in the whole area of whether or not you could say openprincipals are a means of catalyzing the impact of technology in the developingworld … Once you assume that access to technology is a given, after that whatis the means to ensure that you can actually get access to the knowledgeconveyed by those technologies,” said Elder.

Whilewe have more phones, we haven’t addressed issues of universal access onbroadband and enhanced services that citizens require in any modern economy inthe world to effective, said Alison Gillwald, director of Research ICT Africaand visiting professor at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa.

“Someof the research that we are doing is quite narrowly economics-focused, so itdoesn’t explain why some of the obvious economic reforms that would bring downprices – namely the opening up of markets or more effective independentregulation – haven’t been introduced in certain environments,” said Gillwald.

Gillwaldsaid her challenge is to “expand the research more into the political economyof countries to understand why we have the market structures we have when theyclearly are inefficient, why we have the regulatory institutions orarrangements we have when they are clearly constraining, and of course, why wehave the lack of capabilities in critical positions to create an effectivelyfunctioning market.”

“Inmany ways, the same institutional challenges exist that existed five yearsago,” said Gillwald, who will present a paper at the second forum.

Theupsurge in mobile connectivity has addressed the voice gap in South Africa,but a “greater gap than ever before exists in terms of Internet connectivityand Internet broadband, which is barely existent on the continent,” she said.

Roughlyfive per cent of households in SouthAfrica have Internet connectivity and lessthan 15 per cent have PCs, said Gillwald. And South Africa has higher penetrationrates than other African countries, she pointed out.

“Whatis happening is that most of the people who have broadband were dial-upsubscribers, so dial-up is really decreasing because of the limitations for thevery high cost of service. Broadband is also very expensive, but at leastpeople are switching to broadband. In other countries, there is no broadband tospeak of,” said Gillwald.

WhileAfrica has the highest growth rate for mobile technology in the world, peopleare spending very little time on their mobile phones, Gillwald pointed out.There has been enormous growth in mobile, but what this masks is thesub-optimal use of these technologies because of the high cost of service, shesaid.

“[People]have devised all sorts of low-cost strategies to communicate with each other,but are not really able to use mobile phones as the kind of enablingcommunication services that are being used effectively in other parts of theworld,” said Gillwald.

Gillwald’sresearch network, which extends to countries across the continent, is workingto develop the evidence-based policy necessary for change. “One could make anideological stance, but one would not have the evidence without the research tomake a concrete case,” she said.

“Thesupport for this research has been absolutely critical because many of ourgovernments have not put money into that kind of research and haven’t supportedit even within a university context,” said Gillwald.

NobelLaureates Amartya Sen and Michael Spence, who spoke at the original forum, arereturning for this second event and will take part in a panel discussion withICT experts Yochai Benkler and Clotilde Fonseca.

HarvardForum II, which targets academics, ICT practitioners implementing projects inthe field and government policy-makers, will be broadcast live in a Web cast.The public can Twitter in or ask questions via the Question Tool or InternetRelay Chat available on IDRC’s Web site.

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