Global Digital Divide Still Very Much in Existence

Although the US has seen the Internet reach gender parity and extend to lower demographics, the worldwide picture remains quite different, according to a report by the International Labour Organization (ILO).

The ILO’s “World Employment Report 2001: Life at Work in the Information Economy” finds that despite the communications revolution taking place in the world today, increasing numbers of workers are unable to find jobs or gain access to the emerging technological resources needed to ensure productivity in an increasingly digitalized global economy. The report also finds that, given its different speed of diffusion in wealthy and poor countries, what it calls the information and communications technology (ICT) revolution is resulting in a widening global digital divide.

“The ICT revolution offers genuine potential, but also raises the risk that a significant portion of the world will lose out,” said Juan Somavia, Director-General of the ILO. “Let us strip out the hype. What is left? What’s left is its effect on peoples’ lives, wherever they live. We need to promote policies and develop institutions which will let everybody benefit. And it won’t happen on its own.”

Among key findings of the report are:

  • Despite the phenomenal growth of ICT in the industrialized world and its increasing penetration into developing countries, vast areas of the globe remain “technologically disconnected” from the benefits of the electronic marvels revolutionizing life, work and communications in the digital era.
  • ICT provides an “enabling potential” to improve women’s lives. But the report does find that a digital gender gap is apparent within countries, as women often find themselves occupying lower-level ICT jobs while men rise to higher paying, more responsible positions.

The report found that ICT can have a far-reaching impact on the quality of life of workers in poorer countries if the right policies and institutions are in place and serve as important spurs to development and job growth. In some cases, the high mobility of ICT capital and its inherently knowledge-based nature may allow lower income countries to “leapfrog” stages in traditional economic development via investments in human resources. But for this to occur, three needs are most important: a coherent national strategy toward ICT, the existence of an affordable telecom infrastructure, and the availability of an educated workforce.

“We know that ICT is global in its reach, irreversible in its drive, and pervasive in its impact,” Somavia said. “But if the dot-coms are to play an effective role in contributing to our goal of providing decent work for everybody, we must make sure that the policy framework exists globally and that these three needs are addressed.”

The report found that nearly 90 percent of all Internet users are in industrialized countries, with the United States and Canada alone accounting for 57 percent of the total. In contrast, Internet users in Africa and the Middle East, together account for only 1 percent of the global Internet users. Where ICT is most in use, changes in economic relations and behaviors are occurring, according to the report.

Although ICT has the potential to provide jobs for women and improve their lives, the report notes that women generally continue to earn lower incomes, suffer higher unemployment, and are often concentrated in less skilled jobs. The most striking digital gender divide relates to Internet use, with women in the minority of users in both developed and developing countries. For example, only 38 percent of Internet users in Latin America are women, while in the European Union the figure is 25 percent, in Russia 19 percent, in Japan 18 percent, and in the Middle East 4 percent.

Worldwide, most Internet users remain male, college-educated, and earn higher-than-average incomes, the report found. Only where Internet access is well developed, for example in Scandinavia and the US, has the gender gap in use of the Internet closed.

The report also found that little may be gained from access to ICT without adequate levels of education. The inability to assimilate and benefit from ICT that results may be the most significant challenge inherent in the spread of the digital economy in coming years. Reducing other aspects of the digital divide, such as wage differences and the gender gap, will also depend on improved education, the report said.

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