ICT & Digital Divide in the Arab World

Prepared and written by Rami Olwan Research and editing by Ghaith El-Lawzi


Introduction The digital divide issue is one of the most pivotal issues facing governments and the business sectors and the international community as a whole. While the discussion will talk in more detail concerning the issue of ICT & digital divide in the Arab World, one thing must be made clear; Arabs must make a commitment and to take the first effective steps towards bridging this divide. The real challenge lies not in finding the solution but creating the plans leading to the solution and putting the solution mechanisms in place. Further, there’s a need to assign the specialized parties to deal with the necessary cooperation and coordination between these parties. Lastly, the task is not only to discuss the various aspects of the issue at hand, but also to draw strategies and create a vision for the future.

The article must begin with providing an overview of globalization since it is this overwhelming phenomena that made it clear that Arabs do to have a digital divide, both on the international and intra-national levels.

The discussion on the information and communication technologies (ICT) issue is vital, since this group of technologies are without doubt, the primary instruments of globalization, the core issue underlying the digital divide, and the inevitable engines of change.

Though analysts will certainly discuss the issues from a global perspective, here will examine the Arab World, in terms of initiatives, and the outlook for the future. ICT development, the difficulties, the

Globalization is not a unique historical phenomenon and there are clear precedents. Arabs are aware that during the Middle Ages, they were main proponents of globalization, the disseminators of knowledge and technology, and the leaders in education and trade.

Globalization has not always been a positive force, and most recently a malignant form of globalization, colonialism, spread worldwide. This is important because, unfortunately enough, 21st Century globalization still carries the stigma of 20th


century colonialism in the hearts and minds of many in the developing world. It is therefore imperative that analysis keeps these concerns in mind as planners discuss, draft and implement our strategies and plans. There must be assurances for governments and populations of the developing world that 21st Century Globalization will treat all nations and societies with the spirit of equality, fairness, and tolerance. This is why the presence of the UN’s participation is so imperative. The UN must play a positive and effective role as a mediator and coordinator between the developed and developing nations, between the governments and the people, and between the private sector and the NGO’s.

The gist of the matter, and particularly after the collapse of the Soviet Bloc in the dawn of the 1990’s, is that globalization is a foregone conclusion. It cannot be stopped slowed down, or ignored. In fact, it has ceased to be an issue of choice, whether a nation can join in the process or not, but rather how soon it can join. Nowhere is that attitude or urgency clearer than in the World Trade Organization (WTO), where different nations are after the same goal: membership. As a matter of fact, many already believe that the WTO is globalization itself. That is an overstatement, but it does have some truth in it. Certainly international trade, and the organization that facilitates it, is a primary motivator for nations to join the globalization drive. There’s, however, another equally important element playing an equally vital part, and that is the developments, or rather leaps, in the information and communication technologies. This is clear in terms of the Internet’s role in bridging different cultures.

The Digital Divide: What is it and who suffers?

The digital divide now exists between technologically developed and developing countries, as well as within the populations of developed and developing countries. The primary reason behind the digital divide is poverty, but a digital gap also exists along gender and ethnic lines as well. There needs to be a certainty about the definition of the digital divide before dealing with the means of how to bridge it.

The digital divide refers to the uneven pace of progress in access and a debilitating lack of awareness vis-à-vis ICT for many of the developing countries in comparison 3

to the developed nations. The Digital divide, or information poverty as it is sometimes referred to, is the manifest technological gap between those countries on the one hand that have the resources, capabilities, and access to ICT and use ICT for a multitude of purposes, those countries on the other hand who lack such resources, access and capabilities. The digital divide also refers to the differences between nations who systematically acquire and disseminate knowledge through ICT, and those still using more traditional, and inherently slower, forms of learning. This is what is called the International Digital Divide.

Even within a particular society or country, a digital divide exists. There are varying degrees, where a digital divide affects certain segments or groups within each society. There are certain socio-economic and ethnic groups have access to the global ICT network, while their peers in other groups do not have ICT access with the same volume or dissemination. This can happen in the developing world where the rich elites can afford and therefore have access to ICT. The concentration of wealth and power in the hands of one group leads to e-discrimination. This is also the case in the developed world where there are certain ethnic groups, usually the poorest, who have little ICT access. For example, studies have shown that the African-American community has far less access to the Internet than the white community. The same is true for immigrant communities in many European countries. This is what can be referred to as Intra-national digital divide. Many factors play a role but digital divisions within a particular country are usually determined along lines of gender, access to education, income, language as well as race and ethnicity. In particular, the gender digital divide represents a serious problem, since the waste and futility of having more than half of the developing societies sidelined in one of humanity’s greatest technological achievements is loss no one can afford.

Needless to say, the gravity of the situation cannot be understated.

The reaction of the concerned international community and the consequent initiatives to deal with the issue, on both the international and national levels, has been to stimulate the technological progress of the developing countries and to increase their engagement in the world digital economy.


This is undoubtedly a monumental challenge that representatives of different spectrums of international community, must face with determination to ensure that all countries and nations are equipped to take advantage of the promise held by the digital technologies. But simply, the digital divide must be bridged.

Why Developing countries needs to embrace ICT In the opening days of the 21st century, the developing countries are faced with a daunting challenge, where the survival not only of the national governments is at stake, but of whole societies as well. The technological advancement of the last decade has been so rapid and unprecedented that it threatens those who are left behind of being relegated to the outer reaches of human progress. Developing countries need to face and meet the challenge to bridge the digital divide and connect their citizens to the Internet and the World Wide Web to let them join the advanced societies in reaping the benefit and the opportunities that ICT offers to the human race. The Information revolution and the use of the computing technologies are imperative to the progress of all humanity and should not be monopolized by the developed countries.

Developing countries have great potential to compete successfully in the digital information revolution. The natural resources and the cheap labor force are only two elements of what the developing countries can offer in this revolution. Technology figures very highly in the formula for turning these elements into effective economic factors that will enhance their development and give them a better chance in the new global economy. Additionally, this process must use and employ ICT at this time. ICT have the potential to create new types of economic activities, employment opportunities, to strengthen business opportunities and to enhance the quality of life. Take world trade, for example, where the speed of transactions is made faster by the latest ICT technology, and to use a cliché, time is money.

This is a mere example of how ICT can help developing nations and there are more examples. ICT can advance the quality of the health care system in general since technology improves the system, and in particular research and training.


It terms of business, ICT is creating new opportunities for firms to market their product and services directly via the Internet in a globalized marketplace. Thus, ICT helps small and medium-sized enterprises (SME)’s to survive in the global market place. This is a vital point as far as developing world is concerned. There are very few local businesses that can survive the onslaught of the Multi-national companies (MNC)’s based in the developed world without the full utilization of ICT. Although many will merge or be assimilated by the MNC’s, this is an acceptable option in comparison to their demise. In other words, only the deployment of MNC’s can give them a fighting chance in the global marketplace. Even in the rural areas, ICT can make a difference. Today, a poor farmer’s first priority is to get sufficient food for his family. It is not unimaginable the ICT can help him become more effective in the new global market. Like the urban-based SME’s, the peasantry can utilize technology in many useful ways, such as finding competitive prices for his produce, and coordinating with traders to increase his profits, like his peers in Europe. And it is already happening in some developing countries. In Bolivia, Internet centers have been set up to provide farmers with timely information on crops, production and processing as well as policies and regulation.

ICT will play a vital role in the educational rehabilitation of the developing world’s populations. It is a known fact that mass-education in the developing world is much too traditional and undeveloped, stuck in the “chalk and board” time. And illiteracy is still much too prevalent and unacceptable. Therefore it is an easy assessment to make that education needs to go by leaps and bounds to catch up with the standards of developed nations. The discussion will include more detail in a little while about the problems facing education in the Arab World, which is believed generally apply to the majority of the developing nations and where solutions are equally applicable. Therefore, ICT is important in terms of education since they improve the quality of education and create new possibilities for achieving academic goals through newly emerging forms of ICT-based education programs, which provide quality education but at affordable costs. Examples of these are distance learning education and community-based education. These new forms of education are transforming the traditionally adopted basics of education into more modern forms that fit well in the 21st Century.


It is therefore a given fact that ICT is central to the development process it offers unprecedented potentials of begetting economic and social change to the world’s poorest nations. Developing societies can help speed up the development process and even allow societies to leap frog over some stages of development. Even in political terms, the introduction of ICT concepts such as e-government that enhances governments’ interaction with citizens and foster transparency and accountability of governance.

The ICT issue for the developing world is not an issue of response, quick or slow, to the challenges brought by the ICT and the Internet revolution. Rather it is how to ensure that the process becomes truly global and ensure that all nations can reap the benefit of ICT.

People wonder why so many seek and advocate the deployment of new technologies and the need to bridge the digital divide for the developing countries at a time when they are in need of the very basic resources such as water, education, food. The issue of ICTs and the digital divide is ultimately about greater choices, it will improve the equality of manpower and improve the quality of lives.

In the end, ICT is not a magic formula that is capable of solving the problems of the developing world. Nevertheless, the ICT revolution is one of the most powerful historical events, and the consequent technological advances can and must be harnessed to fulfill our global mission of peace and development.

Our task shall not merely facilitate the transformation to an information society but to also ensure that developing nations can reap its full economic, social, and cultural benefits. In other words, the digital divide can become a digital opportunity to everyone.

ICT Strategies and Actions for the developing world

While that there’s certainly a general strategy for ICT worldwide, how that strategy is implemented in each country is an issue in itself. There is no one system that can work in each country. In fact, the considerations of the political, socio-economic and 7

cultural factors of each region separately must be examined. In certain cases, strategies need to be tailor-made for some countries. Nevertheless, this unique identity of some regions does not preclude the success of an ICT strategy to counter the digital divide.

As far as the developing world is concerned, an overall strategy can be modified in its details to suit the specific needs and condition of each country. Generally, however, there are basics to a developing world ICT strategy.

Formation of National Policies

It is a given fact that governments in developing countries must give priority to formulating and developing an ICT national policy that will shape the overall direction and priorities of ICT use and its impact on citizens. While there are concrete efforts to decentralize by some governments, they still play the primary role in the formation of overall national policies. Therefore, when ICT development policies are to be implemented, governments must set out the frameworks for implementation of these policies. The underlying idea of E-government is important to Arab countries and I am aware that some countries in the developing world have established their own e-government portals. It is imperative that all developing countries states should adopt this concept and the related practical experience with the final aim of linking all the countries' portals together. The vision is called e-unity.


The first step must be raising the awareness of the general public and decision makers of the importance and vitality of ICT. Governments should also sensitize ICT policy makers to prominently include gender issues during the process of policy formation. No national ICT policy can succeed without providing e-equality for half of the working population. The new policy should include a list of objectives that are comprehensible to citizens and achievable by the ministries and other government bodies. The plan must define the role of each participant in relation to those objectives, the duties and responsibilities, the allotted time periods, and the points of convergence between participants.

The second step must be to review the taxation policies to ease the importation of technology, and there are many methods in doing this. The best way would be to import the know-how, not as a ready product, but in the form of assembly and manufacturing plants. The reason is simple; if you know how a thing is made, then you know how a thing works. Furthermore, a positive interaction between the local engineers and workers and the foreign experts is needed during the manufacturing and assembly process.

The long-term benefits of this interaction are undeniable, and would result in the development of local ICT engineering skills that will prove valuable for the developing World. Lastly, governments must allocate funds for training courses abroad to increase the technical know-how of the engineers. Such a notion is already in place in terms of military technology. All governments need to do is to use the same road map for civilian ICT policies.

The last important step must be the recognition of the role of the private sector. There must be and awareness that the local and multi-national private sectors must play a role. The role should grow with time, while the governmental role must eventually be focused on regulatory functions. Free market forces must mold and determine the rest of the ICT formula. The strategy should advance the mobilization of private funds that could finance the promotion of ICT awareness, importation of the latest technologies, and bringing the local expertise up to date.


The Legal Infrastructure

The primary pillar of any national ICT policy is the establishment of the legal infrastructure. The executive and legislative branches of government must adopt and modernize effective Intellectual Property (IP) protection laws and their implementing regulations for all IP properties, like copyright, trademarks and patents. Furthermore, the relevant authorities should enforce these laws. These authorities must also be equipped with the latest state-of-the-art technology to make the “policing” of IP protection far easier and more effective. Finally, courts should also be brought to par technologically to expedite the legal process for the purpose of effectual prosecution of the infringers, satisfactory compensation of the infringed upon, and the prevention of future violations.

When drafting laws, legislators should avoid unwarranted regulatory interventions that would hinder private sectors initiatives, particularly in the ICT field. In fact, the opposite should be the case. New IP laws should encourage private sector participation by encouraging the liberalization of the market, the encouragement of privatization, and the enhancement of competition between private companies.

Of course, the bigger legal challenge is the regulation of ICT-related laws, such as those involving e–commerce. Legislators and government officials should take into account unique nature of ICT and the rapid changes it goes through daily. Laws must change rapidly to meet the changes of technology

Telecommunication laws should be reviewed to make sure they promote and liberalize the telecommunication sector and allow fair competition and again take into account principles of effective public private sector partnership.


No ICT strategy can work without an overhaul, or even rehabilitation, of the educational system. It is vital to introduce the basis of digital technology into the educational culture. That is not as easy as it sounds. What “information” is needs to be redefined. Teachers need to learn that their mission is not to spoon-feed their 10

pupils the information they know, but to teach students how to seek and find the information they don’t know. Teachers need to understand that rather than being themselves the source of information that they need to direct the students to other sources.

This new prerogative cannot take place without the IT tools being available in the classrooms and schools. In other words, the governments must restructure the educational system, from the traditional “pencil and notebook” to the modern “modem and mouse”. Picture the difference between a typical geography lesson from the old books, and a new cyber-lesson in an e-classroom. Here students can view all information through a CD-Rom, communicate with the people of the country they’re studying, and even see live pictures of that country through the video-cam. It is not hard to imagine who are students who come out not only more educated, but already citizens of the globe.

Therefore governments and educators must get schools, classrooms and libraries online, and train teachers to be skilled in the full utilization of IT and multimedia resources. Furthermore, the government needs to facilitate the acquisition of IT technology at lower prices, if not providing it for free, for schools, because schools without computers, are simply an exercise in futility.

It was considered a tragedy if a student failed in school, dropped out, or worse still came out illiterate. Today, the tragedy is that high school graduates leave their schools computer illiterate. It is well documented that the young minds are fully capable of learning fast, but there are 18 year olds of both genders who leave school without the slightest idea how to use a computer.

The role of universities is equally expanded. They not only follow-up on the ICT education of schools but enhance and develop that education. In terms of academic curriculum, universities should update their programs to grant degrees related to Information Technology in all fields, including law, engineering, and Business studies, on both the undergraduate level and graduate levels.


ICT should also make a wider impact on all aspects of academic life and the methods of learning, especially research. It is inconceivable that the university graduate relying on traditional learning methods can compete with his peers whose colleges employ ICT technology in the learning process. The measures that should be employed should be in the library, since it is where the real power of knowledge is stored and accessed. Though the image of large libraries stocked with books whose publications spans the centuries is certainly romantic but utterly impractical in both the present and most certainly the future. Books need not be banished, since no one is willing to relinquish the joy of leafing through the pages of a book. Nevertheless, and in terms of academic research, ICT is indispensable. The use of the Internet, Cd-Roms and email is far more superior in terms of results in comparison to traditional means of research, and its speed in equally staggering.

Universities must also exceed their role as mere academic institutions. Developing countries must take heed of American universities who have created Research and Development (R&D) centers for scientific research, complete with state of the art equipment and private sector funding. They have also done the same, in terms of social sciences, by establishing the so-called (Think-tank). The value of these two concepts exceeds far beyond the campus walls, and their work’s influence is clear. Applying the (R&D) and the (Think Tank) concepts in the developing countries Academic institutions, with funding and cooperation of the private sector, can be of mass-interest and socially beneficial, as well as marketable and profitable at that same time.

Governments can equally participate by creating and supporting technical programs at universities by providing grants or scholarships for students and researchers. Equally Governments should utilize universities to accelerate training and education in ICT for its employees and personnel.

Partnerships between the Public and Private Sectors

In order for any ICT policy to succeed and achieve its goals, there must be a publicprivate partnership between the two sectors, the different sectors should learn from


each other. Private sector engagement and effort certainly can stimulate the governments of developing countries to further commitment to ICT.

Governments and the private sector and all segment of civil society must unite and work jointly together to address the challenges that the developing countries are facing at this particular time and they also should share with each experience and share training facilities

ICT Infrastructure and Internet access

The ICT infrastructure challenge is equally daunting but must be undertaken. The existing communication infrastructure in most developing countries is simply inadequate and even primitive. The introduction of Internet and mobile phone technology is generally prevalent but because it must rely on outdated networks, the upkeep has been problematic at best. Governments must continue to improve network access and give priority to the needy areas whether urban, rural and even remote access areas. It cannot be overstated how they must pay special attention to the socially underprivileged people, and to minimize the disparities between rich and poor, men and women, young and old and effectively pursue measures that could facilitate their access and use of the Internet

The next step should be the integration of IT Security measures into the re-vitalized networks. Safeguarding personal data and the flow of information that travel from one place to another across networks is a must to ensure consumer confidence in IT. Developing countries must develop effective and significant privacy protection for consumers as well as using the best technological measure available such as authentication, cryptography and other means ensuring security and validity of transactions. Promoting the use of credit cards can only work if the consumer is assured of the security measures surrounding such online transactions.

Developing countries should “shop around” in the ICT market for the most effective technologies, both in terms of user-friendly quality and cost-effectiveness. Certain countries ban certain ICT technologies for reasons related to political, economic or 13

social reasons, which is understandable. But such considerations should be weighed in relation to the usefulness and economics of a program or application. A carefully studied assessment should be undertaken to determine the appropriate technology to deploy and use on a mass-scale, with a focus on user-friendly technology, particularly in the context of low literacy levels. Finally, the ICT infrastructure should be able to support an open source movement that can make communication software available for those consumers with limited budgets. The Role of the United Nations

The opportunities that ICT offers to the international community at large, as well as the inherent risks that this new technology brings, demands that urgent and concerted actions be taken at both the national and the international levels.

The role and the importance of the ICT as a tool of development has become the focus of sustained attention by international organizations and leading these efforts is the United Nations.

At local, regional and international levels, many initiatives are endeavoring to bridge the digital divide and that is admirable. All these initiatives, however, face the problem of effective coordination between them. Hence the role of the UN and its specialized agencies, such as the UN ICT TF, which is to form strategic partnerships between all these initiatives and to coordinate their ICT promotion activities.

The purpose of the UN’s involvement is to provide leadership and guidance by the high-level decision makers and to raise international awareness of ICT issues. The UN’s role must be the development of policy guidelines and to create internationally acceptable norms and standards on regulatory issues. It must also strengthen the specialized institutions to address issues such as e-government, cultural diversity, intellectual property and cyber-crime.

The ultimate goal of the United Nations’ (Proclamation of the universal right of access to ICT and the related services), such as the Internet. This declaration would act as a watershed and important development in the UN’s history, since it recognizes


ICT access as a fundamental human right, equal to the right of make a living. It further signals that the UN’s principles in the 21st century will be in synchronicity with humanity’s progress.

UN ICT Task force

In his Millennium Declaration, Secretary-General Kofi Anan underscored the urgency of disseminating new technologies to ensure that their benefits are available to all humans, regardless of who or what they are. The Millennium Declaration was subsequently adopted by the member states in September 2000, where the UN members committed themselves, among other things, is to “insure that the benefits of the new technologies, especially ICT are available to all.”

The impetus for the Task Force derives from an April 2000 meeting of independent experts from industry, academia, civil society and government, convened by the United Nations. Consequently, and based on the recommendation of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), the United Nations Information and Communication Technologies Task Force (UN ICT TF) was established. The ECOSOC 2000 Ministerial Declaration defined the Task force priorities to include the following:

1) Raise policy-maker awareness and understanding on ICT development and its potential uses. 2) Promote universal and affordable access to ICT. 3) Assist member states in the formulation of national ICT strategies, policy framework and the regulatory environment. 4) Develop human resources and strengthen institutional capacities by promoting such concepts as e-government through e-education and community-based technical training. 5) Build partnerships, networks and groupings for actions at global, regional and national levels among relevant stakeholders, including the private sector. 6) Mobilize new and additional financial, technical, and human resources. 7) Broaden the international approach to setting standards, regulatory frameworks and governance mechanism activities for ICT related activities 15

8) Assure a better and fairer balance between women and men in the ICT for development programs.

Under the umbrella of the ICT Task Force, various parties, including the private sector, the government and the civil community, work together and coordinate activities, while a number of policy and awareness-raising initiatives have been implemented in a number of countries. Examples of these activities are the Task Force’s national e-strategy seminars in Jordan and Mali.

The task force has developed a working cooperation with the G-8 Dot Force and its follow- up process, the preparatory process of WSIS, the WEF Digital task force, the world bank, GDOI of UNDP and markle foundation, ITUI, UNESCO, Health internet of WHO, UNITes, UNITAR, as well as other global initiatives.