The digital divide: Can we close the gap?
“Closing (or bridging) the digital divide” is a phrase frequently used when discussing the disparity in IT use across Caribbean societies. Although there might be some rhetoric behind that statement, a wide chasm does exist. This post discusses what might be required to close the gap.
According to Wikipedia, the term “digital divide” speaks to:
“the gap between people with effective access to digital and information technology and those with very limited or no access at all. It includes the imbalance both in physical access to technology and the resources and skills needed to effectively participate as a digital citizen.”
The term digital divide has evolved over the years, but its definition is usually customised to highlight country-specific priorities. Nevertheless, the objective usually is to lessen the disparity between “the haves” and “the have-nots”, especially as it relates to the access and use of technology.
The digital divide in the Caribbean
In the Caribbean, similar to what obtains in most countries, the key focus of closing the digital divide is on increasing access to technology, especially the Internet. To that end, the aim has been to facilitate Universal Access: for example, through projects to computerise schools and libraries, and by establishing telecentres. However, to varying extents, those schemes have been hindered by (among other things) inadequate financial resources and protracted administrative processes.
Additionally, and perhaps more critically, through the proliferation of low-cost mobile service and smartphones throughout the region, there are now relatively inexpensive devices on the market that allow Internet access. Consequently, there might not still be an urgency to address the digital divide, since considerable strides have been made to improve access to and affordability of telecoms services.
However, upon closer examination, the progress that has been made to date might have only benefitted certain sectors of the society. The circumstances of the poor still have not been fully addressed – the digital divide still exists. With regard to the poor and persons at the bottom of the societal pyramid, the availability and cost of IT facilities and services are often not the only issues. A critical consideration that is often overlooked is the fact that IT might not be seen as relevant to their lives as they know and understand it.
Although all of the countries in the English-speaking Caribbean enjoy reasonable standards of living, for those at the base of the pyramid and especially in these difficult economic times, their focus tends to be on survival. Specifically, it is on covering their basic needs – food, shelter, clothing, utilities transportation. According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, unless or until a person’s most basic needs are met, they cannot aspire to fulfil secondary or more advanced needs.
In these circumstances, which are frequently compounded by limited education, there are wide cross-sections of Caribbean societies that do not have the insight or the tools to begin to harness IT to improve their lives. This is where a key challenge lies with respect to closing the digital divide.
Closing the gulf
To better address the digital divide, consideration should be given to employing a more holistic approach. Three key areas should be the focus: access; relevance; and standard of living.
Access: Improving access would include both the availability and affordability of IT facilities and services. Although Internet networks in most of the English-speaking Caribbean are fairly extensive, assistance through Universal Access/Service regimes can reduce access costs, and can provide common facilities in areas or for interests where they are most needed. Further, Internet access rates, especially for mobile broadband, are still quite high (relative the average income levels). To the extent that they can be reduced, more persons should be in a position to begin to appreciate the potential of the Internet, especially if the access device is their smartphone.
Relevance: With regard to relevance, the objective would be to develop ways and means for IT to directly improve lives and livelihoods. As discussed in Where is the Caribbean on the apps bandwagon?, there are a wide range of opportunities to develop computing applications that cater to the needs of persons at the bottom of the pyramid. Initiatives that promote local content development could address those needs, but they could also provide avenues for among other things, employment, capacity building, and for promoting ICTs across the society.
Standard of living: IT and ICTs are generally recognised as key drivers of national development. However, such progress might not necessarily result in any discernible improvement in the lives of persons. To appreciably increase the impact of ICTs, governments must be prepared to improve the standard of living and quality of life of its citizens, especially those in the lower socio-economic brackets. By assisting persons to satisfy their more basic needs, they would be in a better position to focus on improving themselves and their circumstances, and especially that of their children.
This proposed approach suggests that the closing the digital divide across Caribbean societies requires a more comprehensive strategy that not only addresses the obvious (such as access), but also tackles issues that would facilitate greater take-up and use. Ultimately, there are no quick solutions. Concerted efforts will still be required to capitalise on the foundation that has been established through the increased focus on telecoms and ICT in the region.