DUBAI, 29 Aug 2005 (IRIN) - With developed countries forging ahead and the Middle East generally lagging in information and communications technology, there is a danger that the growing "digital divide" could hinder economic development, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).
"The size and scale of the potential benefits foregone through failure to participate in the new 'digital society' are likely to be much greater" even than those missed in previous technological leaps, UNCTAD argues, in trying to help international and state policy-makers focus on the issue.
Yet, Egypt has made solid progress in the development of ICT, and has important lessons to offer other countries - not least in the Middle East, which is lagging behind the US and Europe, the UN agency argued in its ICT Development Indices 2004, released earlier this summer.
The lessons may be helpful to neighbours such as Yemen, ranked 136 of 165 countries in the indices, and where ICT development has regressed steadily - relative to other countries - in the last decade.
UNCTAD compiled its ICT Development Indices - covering 2004 but released earlier this year - using per capita measures of connectivity, public access and government policy in regard to internet hosting, personal computers, mainline telephony, mobile telephony and internet usage.
There are sharply contrasting trends according to the type of technology, the agency said, with strong gains in access to mobiles and the internet in many developing countries.
In terms of ICT as a whole, though, OECD countries forged ahead, dominating in ICT connectivity and diffusion. "Changes in ranking are generally small for Arab and Asian countries". In other words, "countries with strong telecommunications development are maintaining their lead and building on their advantages".
Despite the overall trends remaining very stable over recent years, some countries (such as Egypt, China, the Czech Republic and South Korea) have made strong gains in ICT - especially on internet access and use in Egypt's case.
The development of ICT in the Middle East is estimated to be three to four years behind the US, and two years behind Europe, according to UNCTAD.
This partly reflects the lesser importance many of the countries devote to this sector, the agency said, but there is evidence that governments in the region are now giving greater recognition to ICT, with good results.
The Gulf states typically stand higher in the ICT diffusion rankings than other Arab states, with the United Arab Emirates (20) and Kuwait (42) making good progress.
Some other Middle Eastern countries are included in the mid-range of the ICT development indices, including Lebanon at 64 and Jordan at 75.
Iran sits at 84 in the rankings, and Egypt jumped 42 places to 112 between 1995 and 2002, the latest date for which the index provided figures.
Syria stands at 104, while Yemen lags behind in ICT development at 136 of 165 countries covered. The details to generate a ranking are not available for Iraq.
Egypt, in particular, has been active in adopting a broad range of policy changes to facilitate ICT development: it has established a national technology plan, promoted infrastructural development, e-government and e-commerce, supported IT-related research and development, tackled training needs and subscription charges, and established public-private working groups to address particular concerns.
In fact, Egypt's progress may be underestimated in the rankings - based as they are on per capita measures of diffusion - since notable "islands of achievement" in ICT are averaged over large populations to yield rankings that may be lower than expected.
Egypt's particular success has been in expanding the number of internet users, and UNCTAD has highlighted the country as an example of how innovative government policy - and, crucially, its implementation - can foster ICT development and improve the diffusion of technology in society.
EGYPT MAKES SOLID PROGRESS
In Egypt, according to UNCTAD, "a dynamic Ministry of Communications and Information Technology has played a strong role" in ICT promotion and diffusion, collaborating successfully with the private sector and emphasising the importance of public-private partnerships.
Without strong demand-led ICT development, the country drew on traditions of central governance and policy leadership to drive a supply-led approach.
The Ministry of Communications invested heavily in infrastructure itself - in establishing internet exchange points as hubs for Middle Eastern traffic, for instance - while also encouraging private companies, according to UNCTAD.
More tangibly, the ministry abolished dial-up internet subscription charges in January 2002, with Telecom Egypt and consumers' internet service providers sharing the cost instead. Prices were reduced to the rate of a local call, making them among the most competitive in the world at around US 18 cents an hour.
Not surprisingly, abolishing subscription charges "had a direct effect on internet usage", UNCTAD reported, and some three million people in Egypt are now internet users.
The government's success was partly due to pioneering IT clubs designed to promote awareness and affordable access, including to people in poorer areas, the report said.
Egypt had promoted grassroots community access points through IT clubs, it said, in order "to extend access and basic IT training to a wider range of customers and communities". These clubs were established in youth centres, sports clubs, cultural centres, schools, mosques, churches and NGOs in every governorate.
As an indication of their success, it noted their continuing expansion, with 191 established in 2003 alone and the ministry planning to achieve 1,000 clubs by the end of this year.
YEMEN LAGS BEHIND
In contrast with Egypt's surge, Yemen lags near the lower end of the ICT indices, having regressed since 1995 (relative to other countries) in terms of connectivity, diffusion and policy.
In 1995, Yemen stood at 102 in the rankings, but that had slipped to 128 by 1999 and to 136 by 2002, according to UNCTAD.
"Yemen needs the political will to develop ICT, as well as creating awareness among the society on the importance of bridging the digital divide between the world and us," said Yasser Thamer, director general of public relations and media at the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology in the capital, Sana.
"We also need well-trained people, able to deal with such technology in a professional way, so that we turn Yemen into a producer in the area of ICT rather than just a consumer."
Thamer also said there was inadequate networking and coordination on ICT and its usage in Yemen, even between different government institutions.
Yet he disputed that Yemen deserved as low a ranking as 136 on the ICT indices, suggesting that it should probably be up around 100 or 105. Part of the reason for Yemen's low ranking, he said, was the relative lack of awareness in the rest of the world about technology issues in Yemen.
"We are not in close contact with the world," he said. "We do not provide our latest updates on ICT to agencies like UNCTAD. This is why we have been given that rank."
Yemen had made some good progress in terms of ICT in the last few years, Thamer said. The capacity of the landline phone service has been increased from 460,000 lines in the year 2000 to 1.9 million lines in 2005.
The number of mobile phone subscribers had soared from just 27,000 in 2000 to 1.2 million in 2002, and was still rising, he added. The state-owned Yemen Mobile, which Thamer described as the first fully mobile CDMA (wireless) network in the Middle East, has 170,000 subscribers, with the rest divided among the two GSM service providers: Spacetel and Sabafon.
On internet use, according to the ministry, recent figures showed an increase in subscribers to some 105,000 in 2002, up from 8,000 with the sole internet provider, TeleYemen, in 1996.
Yet, the number of internet users remains very low in comparison with the population of 19.7 million population and global access figures, and some 60 percent of total internet subscriptions are owned by the business community, according to local studies.
"Public policy-makers tend to limit the definition of ICT to computers and computer networks only," technology expert Helmi Noman told IRIN, in suggesting reasons for Yemen's poor progress. "There is a lack of a comprehensive vision of the value of ICT in the development context."
Generally, Noman said, "ICT is envisioned as part of either the service or production sector. However, the impact, usability, and sustainability of ICT in development are not strongly understood."
Because there is no "comprehensive vision of the value of ICT in development", Noman suggested, "there is no implementation plan that makes effective use of ICT to address the Millennium Development Goals."
Yemen also suffered from weak donor support for projects that harness the power of ICT for development, he added.
The lowest technology penetration rate in Yemen is among educational institutions (2 percent) and government offices (1 percent), according to Noman.
The internet population is concentrated in five large cities, with almost 60 percent in the capital city of Sana alone. "This is not surprising given that the percentage of the urban population is 24.7 percent of the total population," he said.
The availability and cost of PCs (a locally assembled PC costs an average of US$600) and widespread illiteracy were among the other key obstacles to technology diffusion, Nomad added.
THE ROAD AHEAD
The importance of technology to economic development has long been recognised and is particularly true of ICT in the "knowledge economy" of a global market, according to UNCTAD.
In particular, technology opens up income and growth opportunities in communications, the reorganisation of production processes and improved efficiency across a whole range of economic activities. In effect, the agency says, it offers the potential to assist developing countries "leap frog" entire stages of development.
Not only should countries be promoting ICT in its own right, according to UNCTAD, but its development should be closely linked to the development of education, trade, health and other sectors to generate wider benefits and synergies.
A major challenge for policy-makers, it says, "lies in addressing the issue of digital divide between rich and poor countries, rural and urban areas, men and women, skilled and unskilled citizens, and large and small enterprises."
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