Monday, September 21, 2009

Development and the Digital Divide

I found Elizabeth Hanson's section on the Digital Divide in Chapter Five (p163) particularly compelling because of my current work with an INGO (International Non-Governmental Organization). We work with rural communities in Nepal, India and Bhutan to build community library and resources centers. Among many other details in the project construction, an important component is a section for a computer center with Internet capabilities (when possible).

Our computer sections have had varying degrees of success due to many of the reasons that Hanson listed. In Nepal specifically, the major problem is electricity. While Nepal has bountiful sources of hydroelectric power, much of it gets funneled off to the surrounding superpowers of India and China leaving little for the local population. Last winter in Kathmandu, they had load shedding of up to 18 hours - this means they had days where they didn't have electricity for 18 hours. This is in the capitol city so imagine the outlying areas (unless they have created an independent power source which is becoming more popular). My INGO can bring computers and give training but if there isn't any power, they are no more useful than giant paper weights.

Another huge obstacle is the cost. Nepal has not created an official Internet backbone or network across the country so it is an assortment of private lines and the cost to use it is ourageous. So now, even if there is power, they can't afford to link the computers to the Internet and access all of the information out there.

Hanson also discussed the idea of developing countries being able to "leapfrog" intermediate stages of communication development (Chpt 3, p67). I have already seen this at work in the mountainous , rugged countryside of Nepal. I visited a remote village that took 8 hours of hiking straight up the side of a mountain to reach. There were no roads and definitely no TV or internet lines. However, this village had rigged satellite towers that bounced a signal off various mountain top stations to form a basic wireless Internet connection. This rural community had skipped the wires and gone straight to wireless. However, when we tried it out, the connection failed because it was solar powered and it was cloudy.

In addition, cell phones are now used across a majority of the country. Only 10 years ago, one of our centers had a telephone installed so that it could charge a fee for villagers to use it as a successful way of financially supporting the center. Now that business is obsolete as cell phones and wireless technologies have spread and homes that never own a telephone now have cell phones.

These rural networks still have a long way to go before even being close to the level that exist in developed countries. The Digital Divide will continue to widen if developing countries aren't at least introduced to the tools other countries are using so they can hopefully one day compete and interact on the the global digital playing field.


  1. I think your post is a great illustration of the various political, environmental, and economic barriers associated with ICT diffusion. It is not enough to merely introduce new ICTs in LDCs, even with training in how to use these technologies. Your experiences in Nepal really highlight how instrumental government or private sponsorship of the basic infrastructure needed to support ICTs is in narrowing the digital divide. How was the remote village that you mention able to set up their wireless network. I found this section of your account most fascinating. The idea that a remote mountain village had the technological know-how to set up a wireless internet connection on their own is a really fascinating example of local technological innovation that is often not recognized as existing in developing countries.

  2. Thanks, Marie. There was a man named Mahabir Pun who grew up in that rural village and later studied in the USA. ( Later he moved back to Nepal and wanted to establish the internet in his village - among other things. It's pretty impressive what he has created in one of the most remote communities I have ever visited. This was definitely not the norm but an interesting example of the technological possibilities in rural villages in developing countries.