Time to address digital divide says Minister

9 Dec 2003

Ireland is uniquely qualified to play a leading role in bridging the global digital divide, the Minister of State for Development Co-operation and Human Rights, Tom Kitt TD, has said.

“We have some of the most energetic and innovative ICT companies in the world in Ireland. We also have a world-class programme of development co-operation. It is time to bring the two together in partnership,” he noted.

Outlining his vision of how ICT could play a key enabling role in helping countries escape the poverty trap, he said: “We do not want to see ICTs become the preserve of the urban rich. We want to see them used to empower the poor and promote greater gender equality. Knowledge is power and we need to find ways to improve access to knowledge, so that people can empower themselves.”

He continued: “ICTs have a huge potential to support the fight against poverty and disease. I am, for example, particularly interested in the role ICTs can play in countries that are preparing to roll out HIV/AIDS treatment regimes.”

He was speaking yesterday in Media Lab Europe at the launch of a new report which sets out the strategy for the Government’s official development assistance programme, Development Co-operation Ireland (DCI). Prepared by the Task Force on ICT and Development set up by DCI a year ago, the report makes a total of 21 recommendations regarding the role of ICT in development.

The recommendations include that:

* The Government spend up to €15m over three years on new and existing spending in a partnership approach to ICT involving DCI, the private sector and developing countries
* Enterprise Ireland/Dept of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources establish a steering committee to create a programme to give developing countries a better understanding of how ICT has contributed to Ireland’s development
* A register be compiled of interested Irish private sector companies that are willing to enter into ICT and development partnerships with the aim of developing a ICT volunteer corps
* Stronger relationships be developed between Irish educationalists and institutions and governments, international organisations, educational bodies, and private companies that are working on distance learning networks
* Ireland participates actively in international efforts to develop strategies and policies to deal with the concerns of developing countries on the growing digital divide.

To ensure that the report’s conclusions are implemented, the report also recommends that an ICT and Development Committee led by the DCI and the private sector be established to drive and monitor progress on the implementation of its recommendations.

The 42-page report gives a detailed account of the work of Ireland’s development assistance programme including an overview of the bilateral and multilateral programmes in which Ireland is involved.

Speaking at the launch of the report, Aidan Eames, chairperson of the Task Force on ICT and Development, said that ICT can be a very effective tool to tackle poverty but the spread of technology should not be an end in itself. “There’s no single killer application that will be relevant in every case. It must be culturally appropriate.”

He added that traditional development assistance strategies were changing as aid organisations learned lessons from projects in developing countries. “The old approach to knowledge transfer took the form of simple technical assistance from North to South. Now it’s more demand-driven, built around the needs of developing countries and with greater reliance on national experts, knowledge networks and interactive training.”

This point was echoed by Garry McDarby of Media Lab Europe, who said that real progress towards bridging the digital divide will be made when there is full partnership on projects rather than one-way knowledge transfer. “When people meet across the digital divide and work together important new life perspectives are formed,” he noted.

Also speaking at the launch was John O’Shea, chairman of the Irish Internet Association, who said that the internet could not take root in many developing countries until the basics of electricity and a telephone system were in place. He added, however, that internet industry professionals in Ireland have expertise in areas such as setting up domain name registration services which could be usefully applied in developing countries. He said the IIA was ready to help in any way it could and offered to make any necessary introductions to the 400-strong membership of the organisation.

This Thursday, the Taoiseach will speak at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Geneva, where he is expected to refer to the growing digital divide between rich and poor nations.

By Brian Skelly