IT in SAARC Bridging the digital divide

Information ministers of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) ended their fifth meeting in Kathmandu on Tuesday, deciding to set up a media development fund. Member states have agreed to contribute $1lakh as seed money for the fund which is being operated by the SAARC secretariat in Kathmandu.

The meeting agreed to develop a regulatory framework for “balancing” the works of private channels and public broadcasters. Pakistan has been asked to develop a common position of the South Asian nations to be presented during the World Summit on Information Society to be held in Tunis in November. The SAARC nations have also agreed to present their views on transnational satellite broadcasting within three months. The ministers discussed introducing new tools of technology and creativity for enhancing the SAARC publicity. These recommendations would be forwarded to the 13th SAARC summit in Dhaka in November. The second SAARC ministerial meeting in Pakistan had agreed on an 11-point plan among the 18 points proposed by the first SAARC ministerial meeting in Dhaka in 1998. The adopted action plan called for observing 2007 as the SAARC Media Year and enhancing mutual media cooperation. The other agendas were to recommend to all regional states that postal and telecommunication rates for media transmission and information materials be reduced and the visa regime for accredited journalists relaxed.

However, these promises, along with the need to ensure free flow of information, newspapers, periodicals, etc, have not been fulfilled. Nepal has always welcomed free flow of information through newspapers, periodicals, books and other publications without any restriction. But Nepali publications are always barred from entering other countries, mainly India, either by customs or by foreign exchange regulations. It is felt that a concrete action plan on how to narrow down the technology gap between the developed and developing states of the region has not come up even in this meeting. Information and communication technology (ICT) has become a powerful tool for growth.

Nepal should use it for bringing about development or pay for the failure with slower growth and reduced income. ICT should be used for abolishing illiteracy, upgrading educational institutions and improving government offices. Obviously, the challenge for the governments is clear. They must establish a regional framework to enable all member countries to enjoy the benefits of information age. The majority of the region’s population remains unconnected to information facilities which impel fears of growing digital divide. Development of information technology depends on the development of electricity and telecommunications. Nepal still has limited access to telephone facility.

Development experts are only too painfully aware of the “digital divide”, which separates all those who do not enjoy the benefits of being connected — not just to the Internet, but also to the telephone — from those in the cities who take these things for granted. Nepal has about 3,500 hundred telephone lines, just 2 per cent of the country’s population.

Among these lines, 60 per cent are found in Kathmandu while 98 per cent of the population and 55 per cent villages are out of reach of telephone services. Only less than 13 per cent people have access to electricity. The number of people having access to telephone service is even less. Even those who have access to electricity and telephone services cannot afford information technology. This is one of the major reasons for creating digital divide. Because of the high price, these services are unaffordable. Since information-technology has immense potential, the SAARC countries have made a unified stand on bringing technology to all. The least developed countries should be given priority in information communication technology. The need for commitment to promote ICTs for bridging the digital divide, particularly for the deprived and marginalised sections, is urgent. However, building a truly people-centred and development-oriented information society is possible only when developed nations of the region increase support in an effort at creating opportunity for equal access to information and communication infrastructure. Increased support and co-operation in areas such as training, technology transfer, human resource development and information and communication infrastructure development would be crucial for building national capacities. Our aim should not be directed only towards providing opportunity of using more computers and telephones; instead, the priority should be to increase access to information and guarantee the people’s right to be informed. It should also be directed towards broader social and economic benefits to alleviate poverty.

Chalise is executive editor, Gorkhapatra