Digital divide or mental divide?

Narrowing divide?

When talking about the spread of information and communication technologies, I often hear well-intentioned objections to the generalised use and inception of these technologies. “The newspaper will soon be dead”; “everyone will be using iPhones/iPads/insert-shiny-gadget”; “everyone should have broadband”. These general statements undoubtedly require caveats, not everyone in the world has access to the internet, and even if they did, many of them would be rightly concerned with more pressing issues, such as education, health as sustenance. However, I also often encounter a more nuanced and perhaps more pervasive argument whenever one discusses technology in developing countries. The argument, which I have heard expressed in various shapes, is that developing economies, and particularly least-developed economies, should take a tiered approach to development. In other words, first get sanitation and water, then education, then basic infrastructure, and only then you can start thinking of taking care of internet access. Allow me to present an alternative to those arguments. Let me tell you a bit about Rwanda.

For a while there have been reports in the Western press about the unprecedented push towards internet access in this country. For many years, this tiny nation has been known for the tragic events that took place in 1994, which resulted in a horrendous genocide where one million people were killed. It is hard to imagine how a country can bounce back from such events, but Rwanda has been doing just that, there is an urgency and a sense of optimism to the place that I have rarely experienced elsewhere. What seems remarkable is that for a country that was experiencing crunching poverty, ICTs have become a real alternative for development.

One thing that is often missed in development arguments is how developing economies can often leapfrog steps taken by richer countries. For example, mobile penetration in Africa is surprisingly high, as populations simply ignore landlines in favour of technologies that are relatively cheaper to implement. Rwanda seems intent in leapfrogging the wired internet and moving immediately towards wireless broadband. Talking to officials from the ministry of ICT, they commented that Kigali now boasts 80% wifi coverage provided by the government and private sectors, and they are hoping to have full coverage in the near future. Not only that, there are 10 WiMAX hubs throughout the city, and when the land fibre optic connection to Uganda is finalised, the country will be able to stop relying on slower satellite backbones and join the physical fast internet. The government is pursuing an aggressive ICT strategy that spans all sectors of society. The new ICT law being pushed by the government will make Internet connection a right of every citizen, and private ISPs will have to provide free broadband at minimum speeds, and if the citizen wants faster connections, they will have to pay for it.

The curious thing about this strategy is that it generates development in other sectors of the economy. When the government discovered that they did not have the technical capacity in the country to widen the existing internet infrastructure, they brought engineers from other countries at first, but then they created the Rwanda Institute of Technology, and started a program of education and specialisation at all levels. Education is now not only a right but an obligation, so not sending a child to school has been criminalised. The need to shore-up infrastructure has been followed by economic expansion, as there is need to put up the infrastructure in the first place. The physical fibre optic cables coming from Uganda need to be set down, so this has also created local jobs. ICT development then translates into more money in the economy, which also creates jobs and opportunities.

This is perhaps what really has struck me about the Rwandan experience. Obstacles and challenges are not seen negatively, they are seen as opportunities. I have often heard people from developing countries complaining about low internet penetration in poor places, but instead of looking at this like a challenge, they look at it as an insurmountable fact of life that can never be overcome.

Many developing countries should be learning from Rwanda. Maybe the internet is just one superfluous technology that must wait, or perhaps it can be used as a tool to bring the entire economy forward.

This technophile is mightily impressed.

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