BEIJING, Nov. 24 -- Economic and social gaps between the world's rich and poor nations are multi-faceted. Last week's World Summit on Information Society highlighted the gap in access to information through computer networks.
A double-edged sword, information technology can serve both as catalyst for a widening wealth gap and a bridge for reducing the disparity.
The high-profile summit has made encouraging headway since world leaders reaffirmed promises to bridge the global digital divide, a consensus of enormous meaning in an era when millions of people in Africa, Asia and South America are yet to share the fruits of the amazing global development in information technologies.
It has raised consciousness, at least, about the divide between the world's haves and have-nots and the necessity to link up the global village.
It has announced initiative plans including programmes to set up teaching centres to spread information and foster home-grown talent in poor regions, and provide low-cost mobile phones and laptops to expand the number of mobile phone users and enable school children and teachers to get affordable computers.
But as is always the way at such world-level conferences, it is hard for ideas to receive concrete funding and systematic backup.
There is a lack of an effective and binding global mechanism that can co-ordinate these programmes, and make rich people and communities offer more financial help to those in underdeveloped regions.
Such a deficiency makes it doubtful whether the trickle-down effect of global technological advancement will permeate through to the lower income echelons in each society and the globe as a whole.
Actually, it is a cause of the widespread criticism that the world has been slow in the past years in fulfilling promises to link the people of the world more closely through the Internet.
In 2000, the world's eight most developed countries formed the digital opportunity task force as part of the United Nation's millennium goals to reduce global poverty. But now, things have not improved much, and may in fact have worsened. Only 2 per cent of African people, for example, have access to the Internet, while more than 40 per cent of the population in the member countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development do.
Currently, Digital Solidarity Fund, initiated in 2003 by some African countries, is using the Internet to help treat AIDS patients in Burundi and Burkina Faso.
Before the summit, no developed countries except France had signed up for the fund. More developed countries need to join such funds before truly international efforts can be made.
Just as in the international effort of poverty reduction, achieving our goal will be but a remote possibility without active involvement from the developed countries in the efforts to make it financially feasible to spread information technology to the faraway villages of poorer countries.
This would not be a solely charitable act. A world of balanced development will ultimately benefit developed economies, which are not isolated islands that can prosper without interaction with other parts of the world.
Developed countries need, apart from contributing more to the development fund, to share some of their benefits and take the lead in the global drive to promote information access.
They need, at least, to help the third world build infrastructure at a lower cost, train managerial and technical professionals and open up the public interest-related information free or at an affordable price.
Without these steps, the double-edged sword of information technology will further divide the world.
(Source: China Daily)