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Closing the digital divide across Africa

If the digital divide between the developed world and sub-Saharan Africa is not closed soon, then information and communications technology will simply be added to the growing pile of missed opportunities on that continent, according to a new study published this month in Inderscience's International Journal of Knowledge and Learning.

According to Alea Fairchild and Efuwa Quansah of the Free University, Brussels, the information age has changed the way people all around the world live and work. While digital technologies, including the Internet and the Web, have moved forward rapidly in the developed world some regions, including sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), are lagging far behind.

There are, however, major obstacles in the way of efforts to close the digital divide, including severe poverty, prevalent disease and poor infrastructure. Fairchild and Quansah suggest that closing this technology gap soon is essential if SSA is not to be left behind once again as the rest of the world marches on. The main focus of their research is which type of policy approaches are the most appropriate to overcome the various gaps (global, social and democratic) that create the digital divide. Divisions in wealth, language, geography (urban versus rural, for instance), and literacy, as well as political instability lead to even greater fragmentation of the digital divide, the researchers explain.

One of the problems that faced by those trying to find a solution to the digital divide in SSA is that the divisions are themselves fragmented. The vast majority of the population simply lacks access to basic infrastructure for Internet access, for instance, but there is also a minority who could get Internet but fail to grasp the opportunity. The researchers point to Ghana as one SSA nation that has overcome some of its internal problems to successfully increase access and participation in information and communications technology.

The statistics support this concept of fragmentation, where in a population of 743 million (2005 figures) 1.7% had a telephone and a mere 1.5% owned a computer. Access to television and telephones is almost universal in the developed world and computers are fast approaching the same level of saturation, with around 80 computers per 100 inhabitants in the USA, for instance.

The researchers have looked at Ghana a case in point. The Ghanaian government, they explain has undertaken proactive policies and implemented regulatory measures, put in place educational programs, and built new infrastructure to facilitate the adoption of ICT and to bridge the digital divide.

Nevertheless, although Ghana was an early adopter of the Internet among African nations, having been online since 1993, yet there is still a vast digital divide in this country. Internet access across the population is 1.8% whereas among the wealthy it is almost 60 percent. Other indicators, such as mobile phone use and computer access in general are similarly skewed.

The researchers conclude that much remains to be done in SSA to redress such imbalances which are even more pronounced in other African nations. "We propose that instead of adopting a strategy that simply pushes technology towards the have-nots, the focus should be first on cultivating the human resource requirements," they say, " The roles played by the private sector, national and regional governments, multinational organisations and international bodies cannot be underestimated and closing or narrowing the technology gap will have to come from a concerted effort by both internal and international actors who have a stake in closing the digital divide."

Albert Ang | alfa
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