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Digital divide or digital opportunity

It has become a commonplace that the world economy is being transformed by the rapid spread of information and communications technology and by the enhanced capacity to create, share and apply knowledge: a revolution is occurring in the way people live, learn and work and in the way government interacts with civil society.

Thus on July 7, 2000, the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations declared that information and communication technologies are central to the creation of the emerging global knowledge-based economy and can play an important role in accelerating growth, in promoting sustainable development and eradicating poverty in developing countries as well as countries with economies in transition and in facilitating their effective integration into the global economy.

On July 23, 2000, the Okinawa Charter on Global Information Society renewed the G8’s commitment to the principle of inclusion: everyone, everywhere should be enabled to participate in and no one should be excluded from the benefits of the global information society. The resilience of this society depends on democratic values that foster human development such as the free flow of information and knowledge, mutual tolerance, and respect for diversity.

These declarations are important, but history will judge us not by what we say about the problems, but what we do about it. It is vital that we now go beyond words and move into action.


It is time to recognize that a massive transformation of the world economy is already under way. As the unit costs of computing, communications and transactions continue to approach zero, every aspect of the world’s economy is affected by the possibility of doing things cheaper and more rapidly. This is not just a single sector of the economy being affected, but a thorough-going transformation affecting every sector. Moreover, every economy is being inexorably affected, albeit at different speeds. New kinds of organizations are emerging. New ways of managing are needed to cope with the transition. The private sector is generally in the lead, and is transforming itself through the force of competition. New opportunities are presenting themselves to governments to be more responsive to their citizens.

It is time to recognize that a corresponding massive transformation of development assistance is called for. Every developing country, and every development organization, needs to adjust its actions and activities to reflect the changes occurring in the world economy. Every process can potentially be improved to take advantage of the new economics. Every traditional practice or policy needs to be systematically scrutinized to see whether it is still relevant.

It is time for development organizations to recognize that, in helping their clients cope with these massive changes in the world’s economy, they need to lead by example. While the recent interest in ICT around the world at all levels is very welcome, actions speak louder than words. If development assistance, and the organizations that support it, remain mired in the approaches and processes of the twentieth century, their advice is unlikely to be heeded or even relevant. It is only by the organizations themselves learning by doing that they can acquire the expertise needed to help their clients.


There is a need to recognize the multi-dimensional nature of the changes that the world economy is going through. It is time to understand the problem in its full complexity, not deluding ourselves that a quick “technical fix” related to ICT can sidestep messy human and institutional problems:

· The simplest part is the provision of wider access to information and communications technology, but this wider access is neither necessary nor sufficient to cope with the economic transformation under way.
· Without literacy and education the understanding needed to take advantage of computers will be missing.
· Nurturing networks and communities has turned out to be a crucial element in taking advantage of the new access to information and knowledge.
· There will also be a complex interplay between the new challenges and the old causes of slow development that haven’t gone away – the backlog of institutional, policy, economic and social problems which constitute the existing constraints to development and which risk constituting major obstacles to coping with the new challenges.

Although there are possibilities of using new technology to leapfrog the traditional problems of economic development, it will require considerable understanding and skill to make that happen. Without an extraordinary effort, the more likely scenario is that those already behind will fall further behind.

It is thus vital to recognize that it is not just an issue of technology, which constitutes merely the pipes through which information and knowledge can flow. It is time to realize that increased understanding does not automatically happen just by putting computers at people’s disposal. It is only if the culture is receptive and responsive to the change that computers actually get used. Culture always trumps technology.

It is crucial to recognize that the transformation involves not just the storing of data and information, mere bits and bytes that can be stored on a computer, but knowledge which involves human interaction and understanding.

It is thus important to recognize the human and social dimensions of the changes needed. We need to combine our enthusiasm for the potential contribution that ICT can make with an understanding of the experience of developed countries which shows that indiscriminate investment in ICT can lead to large-scale waste. For developing and transitional economies to avoid mis-investment and capture benefits, appropriate institutional arrangements need to be made.

It is time to recognize that this is not simply a problem of building ICT infrastructure – essential though that is – but also a problem of sharing knowledge. We need to realize that knowledge is sticky, and does not typically travel at the speed of light. Communities and networks are essential to enable knowledge to pass from one person to another.

It is a time to realize that complex actions are involved in getting the benefits from ICT – and even more so, knowledge. In the same way that it was learnt that money wasn’t a solution to the world’s development problems, because it depended on how the money was used, ICT isn’t by itself a solution either. It is a question of how ICT is used, for what purpose and in what context.

It is time to master the geography of the new economy. Activities that have been peripheral in the past are now central to the functioning of the new economy. Nurturing communities of practice, communications and connectivity are fundamental to functioning of the new economy. In a time of rapid transition, the ability to learn will be the determinant of success or failure, of economic life and death. The ability to create, disseminate and apply knowledge becomes a crucial skill. The practice of management itself is undergoing a transformation, as vertical command-and-control practices prove less effective than horizontal modes of collaboration across organizational boundaries


While much has been learnt, much remains to be done. While the general direction of change is emerging, the full implications of the transition are still being thought through. Some of them are as follows:

The central role of knowledge: In the world economy, it is becoming increasingly obvious that money is merely a commodity. The real driver is knowledge – the ability to create, disseminate and apply knowledge i.e. an ability to learn faster than one’s competitor. There is a need for a parallel recognition in development that money is a commodity, and knowledge is the driver. Much of the processes and organizations revolve around the management of money. There is a need for development actions, activities, processes to shift attention to the center of the process, namely knowledge.

Fostering south-north knowledge flows Development assistance needs increasingly to be seen as not simply a process of financing physical facilities, such schools and cars, but also a process that is invigorated by people’s abundant ideas and inspirations. In this way, a culture can draw on its local know-how, including indigenous knowledge, which is then reinterpreted and developed in light of the most useful approaches from elsewhere. Knowledge systems in the international institutions need to be open and responsive to inflows from whatever source.

Fostering south-south knowledge flows: Developing countries often learn best from each other, since the real experts on development are often those who live the reality of the problems on a day-to-day basis.

Helping developing countries share knowledge. The same logic that drives the international community to share knowledge applies with equal force in developing countries themselves. Ultimately they must establish their own learning communities, establish their own knowledge-bases, authenticate them from their own experience, interpret what is meaningful from their own perspectives, and create a future that meets their own needs. As international institutions themselves learn how to share knowledge more effectively, they can and should help developing countries to understand what is at stake in terms of managing knowledge and to nurture similar capacities there. This will be a large-scale and long-term undertaking; international institutions and developing countries can make a start by establishing the appropriate facilitative institutions that can catalyze the process.


While the future shape of development assistance is impossible to predict in detail, the general lines of development are beginning to emerge:

Every country assistance strategy and every economic report will need to take into account the fundamental shifts now occurring in the world and local economy, and give a central role to the strategies and tactics needed to cope with the transition. In effect, all economies are now “economies in transition”.

Every development strategy will need to analyze the changing roles of all the actors in the emerging economy.

Every sector will need to think through how its main activities are going to evolve in the ongoing economic transformation.

Every development project will need to be analyzed from a knowledge perspective – how is it helping knowledge to be shared and learning to occur faster?

Every manager in the developing countries and in the assistance agencies will need to have a basic competence in the emerging knowledge economy.

Every task team will need to have access to appropriate expertise in the field.

Development financiers will need to have the flexibility, agility and the smarts of the venture capitalist.

The potential role of the World Bank

For a number of years after October 1996 when President Wolfensohn announced the idea of "the knowledge bank", the World Bank played an important role in showing how knowledge could play a central role in development.

In the period 2005-2007 under the leadership Paul Wolfowitz, the World Bank seemed to lose its way in many areas. Knowledge management was simply one of the many casualties of this sad period in that organization's history.

Meanwhile other organizations, such as the UNDP and some bilateral aid organizations picked up the challenge. With the arrival of a new president on July 1, 2007, Robert Zoellick has an new opportunity to reestablish knowledge at the center of the World Bank's agenda, and at the center of development generally.

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