Reducing the Digital Divide: CyberVolunteering as a Tool for Development

Corinne Schouten
21 January 2005

With the CyberVolunteers Program, ICVolunteers strives first and foremost to create opportunities. Opportunities for the volunteers to gain experience and offer their skills, but also for their partner organizations. They will learn from the cyber-volunteers and in turn be able to teach others. Or they will be able to use and maintain computer networks and software designed especially for their needs: those of NGOs, communities, and local authorities.

The cyber-volunteers will not only spread the use of information and communication technology (ICT), but also empower the local populations both in ICTs and in stimulating their economy. In other words, says Viola Krebs, Director of ICVolunteers: "ICTs are not the end-goal, but a tool for development."

In fact, the CyberVolunteers Program fits in with the Volunteer Action Plan drawn up during the World Summit on the Information Society in 2003 by a range of volunteer organizations involved in the process of the Summit. They strived to contribute to the attainment of the Millennium Development Goals that the United Nations set to reduce poverty in the world.

The digital divide is most apparent in Africa: the UN ICT Task Force estimates that of the approximately 816 million Africans only, 1 in 160 uses the Internet, 1 in 130 has a PC, 1 in 40 has a fixed telephone line, 1 in 35 a mobile phone, 1 in 13 a television and 1 in 4 a radio [Mike Jensen, Third UN ICT Task Force Meeting, 30 Sep - 1 Oct 2002].

How could all these ICTs be used as a tool for development? Of course, many Africans in rural areas have never even heard of the Internet. "Before anything else, my worry is how to feed my children tomorrow", says Shindouk, Touareg living in the region of Timbuktu. He adds: "The Internet is not a bad idea, but it has to come in steps. We have not reached that stage yet."

Still, something needs to be done to prevent the digital divide to widen even more, not just in the South but also within communities. "No country in the world can afford to isolate itself with regard to ICTs or ignore their value for development," says Sylvie Niombo, President of the NGO AZUR Development in Congo-Brazzaville.

Indeed, information technology can solve a number of problems in Africa. It can reduce traditional obstacles such as bad roads and lack of telephone lines for instance: communicating by e-mail is much quicker and cheaper. Small businesses such as in the tourist industry are able to make contacts with clients all over the world. Students have access to information not readily available in their own library. Doctors are able to seek advice from colleagues elsewhere -- the list is endless.

To make full use of these digital opportunities, Africa needs not only the equipment, but also and more importantly, knowledge and skills. Which is exactly where the cyber-volunteers come in. They have the skills, they do not claim a salary, and they put the needs of their hosts first. Capacity building is the key word here: the capacity to make use of 21st century technology for development.

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