Poor nations need more than high tech to cross digital divide

August 13, 2000

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- It will take more than an influx of money and technology to help the world's poor countries cross the digital divide, new research has found.

A study of 75 developed and developing countries found that a broad range of social, economic and political factors need to be present for Internet development to take root in a country.

The countries with the greatest Internet development have high rates of literacy, education, political freedom, and service-based economies -- as well as technology infrastructure, said Edward Crenshaw, co-author of the study and associate professor of sociology at Ohio State University.

"There's been a big push to help the world's poor countries overcome the digital divide, but most of the solutions take an overly technological focus," Crenshaw said. "Our research clearly indicates there are requirements other than technology that have to be met."

Crenshaw conducted the study with Kristopher Kyle Robison, a graduate student in sociology at Ohio State. They presented their findings August 14 in Washington at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association.

Robison and Crenshaw measured the amount of Internet development in countries by calculating the number of Internet hosts per 10,000 people in each country between 1997 and 1999. The data came from the World Bank and an organization named Network Wizards. Data concerning the countries' political, social and economic conditions came from the World Bank World Development Indicators 1997 report.

"We found that Internet development is driven by complex interactions that could aptly be called 'post-industrialism,'" Robison said. "Probably the most important factor is educational attainment."

Obviously, educated people are more likely to be able to use the Internet and find it useful in their everyday lives. But education is also the foundation for other factors related to Internet development, such as service-based economies, accroding to Crenshaw.

Political freedom is also a key to Internet development, the study found, probably because autocratic governments don't want their people to have access to technology that could mobilize citizens politically.

Based on these results, Crenshaw said the researchers can make educated guesses about which countries are poised to cross the digital divide and which countries are too far behind to catch up anytime soon.

"Countries like Ethiopia, Niger, Tanzania or Laos will not be represented on the World Wide Web anytime soon," Crenshaw said.

However, there are other countries which don't have extensive Internet development yet, but which have the social, economic and political building blocks in place. These countries include Jamaica, Botswana, much of Central America and South America, Indonesia and Korea.

"Only time will tell if these nations do in fact embrace the Internet, but they do possess the minimum requirements to have a greater presence in the rapidly expanding global network of computers," he said.

Crenshaw said the results of this study make him dubious of recent plans by leaders of the eight major industrialized nations (the so-called G-8 countries) to help eliminate the digital divide.

In July, the G-8 created the Digital Opportunity Task Force to help find ways for poor countries to take part in the Internet revolution.

"I think the G-8 believes that if the industrialized countries just provide the technology to the poorer countries, they will catch up," Crenshaw said. "I doubt that is going to happen. There's a lot that has to be done in terms of education, economic development and political freedom before most countries can make use of the Internet."
Contact: Edward Crenshaw, 614-292-5455; Crenshaw.4@osu.edu Written by Jeff Grabmeier, 614-292-8457; Grabmeier.1@osu.edu

Ohio State University

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