UNESCO: United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization

The Organisation

Special Issue

Bridging the North South Divide
Languages Used on the Internet Enlarge image
Source: Internet World Stats, 2005
When it first appeared, the internet seemed a most auspicious tool. It would enable the planet to become the “global village” envisaged by Marshall McLuhan. Through the Web, the poor countries would be able to benefit, with unprecedented ease, from a myriad of databases, from training, from online courses, all of which would provide access to the knowledge society and allow these countries to catch up progressively with the pack of prosperous nations. In 2001, a United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report stated that technological networks are “transforming the traditional map of development” and “creating the potential to realize in a decade progress that required generations in the past.”
Now that a few years have passed, this euphoria has somewhat subsided. The tool that provides immediate access to huge quantities of information remains as promising as ever, but there is now a greater awareness of the obstacles to be overcome in order to provide access for all. In fact, the digital divide, the term applied to describe the technological gap between the North and the South, has widened. A few figures suffice to prove this assertion: in the rich countries, one person out of three owns a computer compared to one out of 130 in Africa; in 2003, 19% of the planet represented 91% of internet users; one third of the world’s population is not connected to an electricity supply.

Information summit

It was in this morose context that the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) was held in Geneva in December 2003, with a second phase held in Tunis in November 2005. At the WSIS, sponsored by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), UNESCO, governments, non-governmental organizations (NGO) and the private sector, participants all came to the same conclusion: the digital divide can be bridged if there is consensus on the means to bridge it. The Summit adopted a Declaration of Principal and a 28-point Action Plan calling for universal access to information, cultural and linguistic diversity and the free exchange of ideas on the net.

Taking concrete measures, the participants adopted the proposition of Senegalese President, Abdoulaye Wade, and, in March 2005, created a digital solidarity fund. Based in Geneva, it has already collected several hundred thousand euros. “The WSIS is an historic international discussion allowing the mobilization of numerous partners. Many of the principles upheld by UNESCO were included in the final document,” says Elizabeth Longworth, Director of UNESCO’s Information Society Division. The texts adopted in Geneva consolidated the idea of the “knowledge society, which encompasses more than just the information society because it also includes the issues of development, of content and of diversity,” adds Axel Plathe of UNESCO’s Information Society Division.

The distinction is important: a knowledge society is concerned not only with the transmission of information but also with its content and use. Bridging the digital divide is not simply a question of providing equipment. “It’s hard to imagine that someone who doesn’t know how to read will know how to look things up in a library or that a person will become a mathematician simply because they have been offered a digital television,” explains Eric Guichard of the National Institute for Research in Computer Science and Control in an article entitled “Does the ‘Digital Divide’ Exist?” (1). Owning a computer is a first step, but one “also requires a social capital in order to get help w h e n o n e d o e s n ’ t u n d e r s t a n d t h e (dys)functioning of a software programme, of an online service or of one’s computer; and, finally, one needs cultural capital to know where to look for the information one is seeking,” adds Guichard. UNESCO’s Information for All Programme (IFAP) was launched with these ideas in mind in order to develop “digital literacy” in countries where access to the web is limited (see box on p. 61).

To achieve this “literacy,” however, language- use on the web must be diversified and improved. In 2003, 90% of internet users had access to only 11 languages (see chart above). English is the language most used by far (31.6%), followed by Chinese (13.2%) and Japanese (8.3%). For Annie Chéneau-Loquay, founder of Afric’anti, an observatory studying the impact of ICT on West Africa, there is a need to develop content adapted to developing countries. “Beyond the transfer of technology issue, we must think about creating programmes that better respond to the specific needs of their economies and of their educational systems which often combine modern and traditional methods,” she says.

But the battle may not yet be lost if the general trend toward a regular increase in internet users is any indication, although this varies from one continent to another. There were 23,000 internet users in Sub-Saharan Africa in 1995, and there are nearly 9 million in 2005, according to the International Telecommunications Union. The number of mobile telephones per inhabitant has also skyrocketed in the same region. According to Chéneau- Loquay, “the acquisition of a cell phone in societies with a strong oral tradition is a positive sign, if not a definite indication.”

1. Article published in Globalization and Its New Divides: Malcontents, Recipes, and Reform, Dutch University Press, Amsterdam, 2003.

Information for All: eradicating “information poverty”

  • An incongruous gathering of women with power and responsibility was held in September 2005 in a country, Uganda, where men generally hold the reins of power. The group of elected officials and of managers of small farms or businesses, young women all, were invited to come sit in front of a computer and acquaint themselves with the most recent information and communication technologies (ICT). The initiative originated with the Kampala-based nongovernmental organization (NGO) Forum for Women in Democracy (FOWODE). In addition, with funding from UNESCO’s Information for All Programme, FOWODE will computerize its library and acquire up-to-date materials. That is a first step in the process and a second step, to train the women to use the new tools and to search online, will ensue.

  • The IFAP is an international co-operation programme aimed at reducing the gap between the “information rich” and the “information poor” through regional and international partnerships. Another project on libraries and copyrights was created in September 2005. Benefiting from a US$34,000 grant, the project, implemented by the international foundation eIFL.net, provides librarians, mainly in the former Soviet Union, with political and legal training.

  • See also:
        Towards Knowledge Societies
  • WSIS 2003 and 2005
        International Telecommunication Union
  • Information for All Programme (IFAP)
  • Author(s): 
    Samy Mouhoubi
    Europe and North America Latin America and the Caribbean Africa Arab States Asia Pacific