Journal Issue

On the Global Digital Divide

International Monetary Fund. External Relations Dept.
Published Date:
January 2001
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Ashfaq Ishaq

Why is the global digital divide an important issue, and what benefits would result from bridging it?

The Digital and information revolution presents a historic opportunity for developing countries to take a quantum leap forward, develop their own productive and creative capacities, and become integrated into the global virtual economy. However, Internet density (users as a percentage of population) is still much higher in industrial countries, as well as in affluent and educated communities in every country, than elsewhere. The Internet threatens to magnify the existing socioeconomic disparities, between those with access and those without, to levels unseen and untenable. Therefore, urgent actions are needed at the local, national, and international levels to bridge the global digital divide. This article outlines both the digital opportunity and the digital divide and argues that bridging the divide is a precondition for a worldwide creativity revolution to blossom.

The big divide

In the final pages of Jacques Barzun’s opus on the past five hundred years of Western cultural life (Barzun, 2000), he conjures up the following vision of the year 2300:

The population was divided into two groups; they did not like the word classes. The first, less numerous, was made up of the men and women who possessed the virtually inborn ability to handle the products of techne and master the methods of physical science, especially mathematics—it was to them what Latin had been to medieval clergy. This modern elite had the geometric mind that singled them out for the life of research and engineering. … Dials, toggles, buzzers, gauges, icons on screens, light-emitting diodes, symbols and formulas to save time and thought—these were for this group of people the source of emotional satisfaction, the means to rule over others, the substance of shoptalk, the very joy and justification of life…. It is from this class—no, group—that the governors and heads of institutions are recruited. The parallel with the Middle Ages is plain—clerics in one case, cybernists in the other. The latter took pride in the fact that in ancient Greek cybernetes means helmsman, governor. It validated their position as rulers over the masses, which by then could neither read nor count. But these less capable citizens were by no means barbarians, yet any schooling would have been wasted on them; that had been proved in the late [twentieth century]. Some now argue that the schooling was at fault, not the pupils; but when the teachers themselves declared children unteachable, the Deschooling Society movement rapidly converted everyone to its view.

This is Barzun’s description of the digital divide, written as if it were being viewed from after the year 2300 but actually reflecting New York’s reality in 1995—just before the Internet created the greatest equity wealth boom in the history of mankind. At present, the digital divide mirrors the technology gap separating the rich countries from the poor ones—a gap that opened up during the industrial revolution and has yet to be fully bridged. The pessimistic view of the digital divide—that it is widening as information and communications technologies (ICTs) advance to broadband—is likely to prevail if the public, private, and civil sectors fail to bridge it before it becomes too expansive and intractable.

The uncontested fact is that the Internet is still growing at a phenomenal pace. Estimating the current number of Internet users is difficult, however, because one person may have multiple Internet accounts or a single account may have multiple users. According to the table, more than 400 million users were online in November 2000, with nearly 69 percent of them in the United States, Canada, and Europe. Internet density has increased to more than 53 percent in the United States and Canada, but is a mere 1 percent in the Middle East and 0.4 percent in Africa. Overall, a modest 7 percent of the world’s population uses the Internet, which shows both how widely the Internet has spread and how much remains to be done before universal access is attained.

Universal access

Access requires an Internet device, such as a personal computer (PC), electricity, telephone service, and an Internet service provider (ISP). Today, there is virtually no technological constraint preventing access; even a remote village or a faraway hamlet lacking both telephones and electricity can be connected to the Internet using a satellite dish and solar power. The constraint, therefore, is purely financial. At the local level, the costs of building the necessary infrastructure and procuring the equipment have to be financed. At the national level, the foreign exchange cost of importing needed equipment and services must be met. At the international level, a funding mechanism to promote universal access has to be established.

To begin with, universal access must be defined, ideally, as a basic necessity, if not a right. The trend in industrial countries is to guarantee access anywhere, anytime, through multiple devices. Students, for example, can connect to the Internet at their schools or homes or at libraries, community centers, or shopping malls. Further, wireless technology is making the Internet nearly omnipresent. Poor countries cannot afford such an array of choices, however. In most villages and towns, only a single central access point can be established. Examples of such shared access are community cyber centers in Jamaica, mobile Net units in Asia, Internet cafes in South America, cyber bars in Eastern Europe, e-mail kiosks in India, and walk-in Internet posts in Mongolia.

Number of Internet users worldwide

in millions
Users as percent

of total world users
Users as percent

of population
World total407100.06.8
Middle East20.51.1
Latin America174.23.2
United States and Canada16741.053.9
Sources: User estimates are for November 2000 from Population estimates are for 2001 and were drawn from
Sources: User estimates are for November 2000 from Population estimates are for 2001 and were drawn from

Although in industrial countries the distance between users and Internet-ready computers is nearly zero, in developing countries it can be several miles. Shared access and the acceptance of the “last mile” between an average user and the nearest access point can drastically reduce per capita access costs. Universal access can be further refined to mean that one member of every family anywhere has access to the Web for at least a short period every day or every week. Through this single online member, the entire family can be occasionally connected to the virtual world, enabling it to reap some of the benefits of the digital revolution. Universal access, thus narrowly defined, may be possible by 2005, as has been advocated by the United Nations.

More optimistically, Internet users have increased by about 100 million a year in the past couple of years. If this rate continues, the population online will increase from 400 million in 2000 to 900 million in 2005. However, bringing each successive 100 million people online will require greater and greater financial and training resources.

Training and content

With four billion unique, indexable pages already, the Internet offers incredible and unprecedented communications, learning, and transaction opportunities for those connected to the Web. Without adequate training, however, users cannot employ the Internet effectively to advance their own objectives. Instead, they may find themselves lost on the Web, as a result of information overload, or get caught in the net of pirates, perverts, and impostors.

When the Internet’s local impact grows, it will become more attractive to new users, who will be predominantly from the developing world. Although the Internet started as a U.S.-centric medium, and English continues to dominate the Web, the publication of local content is gaining momentum and support. A report of the Digital Opportunity Task Force (DOT Force) established at the 2000 Group of Eight Summit in Kyushu-Okinawa (Group of Eight, 2000) states

Innovative partnerships are required to support local content creation and dissemination, including indigenous knowledge preservation. A key aspect of this is the creation of the technical foundations for greater cultural/linguistic diversity on the Internet, including better integration of different writing systems with the Net’s technical standards A related priority is technical and financial support for content-development tools for non-literate populations, to enhance not only their effective use of ICTs but also the cultural diversity of content available online.

Implementation of these recommendations will enrich the Internet and enhance its international usefulness.

E-learning and e-development

Several major universities, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Cambridge, are placing their course materials online, making them available to all. More significantly, the Internet is bringing about a revolution in learning and education. New approaches are taking root and spreading, involving radical changes in attitudes as well as incorporation of new research on how learning takes place and how to make education more effective. The Internet is replacing the “sage on the stage” pattern of instruction with a new model of “guide on the side.” With students at the center of the learning process, schools can become fundamental agents for change, helping reengineer the whole educational system and stimulating lifelong learning.

The Internet is a place not only to acquire knowledge but also to create, document, and store it. Users are coming together to create knowledge networks and “mutual education communities.” E-mentoring on the Web is possible through listservs, connecting students on one continent with tutors on another. In sum, the Internet has opened exciting new opportunities for human capital development, which can and should result in a more informed, empowered, and creative citizenry—a precondition for economic development.

A growing recognition of the Internet as a promising path for economic development of poor countries has led to e-development—the pursuit of new opportunities available to those with access to the Internet. Here again, closing the digital divide becomes a primary concern. The hope is that e-development will not consist merely of the publication of old recipes in a new medium. Rather, it would usher in new theories and practices of economic development. As Jack Welch, the Chairman of General Electric, has famously stated: “The secret of success is changing the way you think.”

Meanwhile, the development landscape is rapidly changing: taxpayers in Brazil can file their tax returns online; farmers in Bhutan access the Web to learn how to protect their harvest and improve crop yields; radio talk-show hosts in Sri Lanka surf the Net in response to questions and air the answers in local languages; nurses in Gambian villages use digital cameras to download and transfer images of patients’ symptoms to nearby towns for examination by doctors; when Hurricane Mitch hit Honduras in 1998, the Internet helped expedite and broaden the relief efforts; and the same year Timbuktu, Mali, went online. Every week, a new community in Africa, Asia, or Latin America gets connected to the Web, publishes its own website, starts e-commerce, or embraces e-learning. All such projects need to be supported, promoted, and replicated with national and international assistance, because the more widespread the digital opportunity becomes, the greater will be the incentive at local levels to gain access to the Web.

Ashfaq Ishaq is founder and Executive Director of the International Child Art Foundation (Washington). He has worked at the World Bank and served as both an Adjunct Associate Professor of Economics at the George Washington University and President of USA International, Inc.

With universal access and an Internet-literate workforce, the digital revolution can serve as the engine of economic growth and development. To this end, it is necessary to create ICT ministries that deal specifically with complex Internet issues, ranging from privacy to taxation. Internet ministers would benefit from an IMF- or World Bank-sponsored listserv through which they can exchange ideas and collaborate. This could be a first step in creating a virtual community of political, corporate, and civil society leaders to address the global digital divide.

The next revolution

Starting as a new medium for communication and information, the Internet has quickly become a place for learning and transactions. The initial impact of the Net has been on increasing productivity in the workplace. For example, the use of ICT contributed close to 50 percent of the total acceleration in U.S. productivity in the second half of the 1990s (United States Internet Council, 2000). Wireless technology will further increase productivity by allowing individuals to make effective use of the time they have available between tasks. And there is much more to come, considering that the digital revolution is still in its infancy.

The full promise of the digital revolution lies in the blossoming of a creativity revolution worldwide. The Internet can be a dynamic platform for the use of knowledge through new forms of learning, so that individuals and organizations can achieve their creative potential. Already, there is a growing awareness that creativity should be a central focus of public policy. A recent paper on U.S. cultural policy (Venturelli, 2001) warns that “a culture persists in time only to … [the] degree it is inventing, creating, and dynamically evolving in a way that promotes the production of ideas across all social classes and groups.” Indeed, without creative dynamism, seemingly productive societies fade away, leaving behind their rusted factories and social detritus. Developing creative capacities is hence the defining challenge for individuals, organizations, societies, and governments.

The new growth theorists’ introduction of ideas and knowledge as inputs in the production equation reflects a recognition that the new economy is a creative economy, characterized by high potential output growth and low inflationary expectations. A new book titled The Ingenuity Gap (Homer-Dixon, 2000) discusses the gap between the difficulty of the problems faced by societies (the demand for ingenuity) and the delivery of ideas in response to these problems (the supply of ingenuity). A creativity revolution can ensure that new ideas are generated in time to avoid diminishing returns on investment and that ingenuity is present to solve problems along the way.

A creativity divide has existed in the world since long before there was a digital divide or a technology gap. The digital revolution can finally close the creativity divide by fostering and supporting human creativity worldwide. For this to occur, however, the global digital divide needs to be bridged and the Internet’s potential to serve as a creativity playground for children needs to be harnessed (see Ishaq, 2001). This would ensure that the next generation is more imaginative, innovative, creative, and artistic.


Because the digital and information revolution is still in its infancy, it is impossible to predict whether this revolution will ultimately provide a unique opportunity for the poor to leapfrog into prosperity or whether the digital divide will deepen with time, relegating a majority of the world’s population to a technological underclass that will be held back for generations to come. At its best, the digital revolution can blossom into a creativity revolution. At its worst, it will pit the cybernists against the unschooled majority in a battle without end.

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