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December 13, 2004

International Support for Dissolving Digital Divide

Yoshihiro SUZUKI (Chairman, NEC Planning Research, Ltd.)

In 2002, I was appointed as the representative from the Japanese business sector to attend the concluding conference in Calgary, Canada to summarize the activities of DOT Force (Digital Opportunity Task Force).

It was in 2000 when the Kyushu-Okinawa G8 Summit adopted the "Okinawa Charter on Global Information Society" in which the G8 governments agreed to establish a Digital Opportunity Taskforce (DOT force) and to look into activities aimed at eliminating the digital divide, which would be reported to the G8 leaders at the Summit scheduled to be held in June, 2002 in Kananaskis, Canada.

I was surprised to find that everyone attending the meeting was aware that Japan had pledged to contribute 15 billion dollars in five years for the cause of the Okinawa Charter and the elimination of the digital divide. Expectations were high for Japan's active commitment.

According to the ITU, there are currently an estimated 660 million Internet users in the world. Yet 90% of the world population is not able to use the Internet. In addition, there are approximately 6,800 languages in the world but the number of languages supported by operating systems (OSs) is limited to 135.

Task Force Activities

Soon after the Kyushu-Okinawa summit, the Task Force was formed on the web by government officials, business people, NPO members, and a few participants from developing countries as well.

The Task Force was to make an interim report, the "Genoa Plan of Action," to the Summit meeting in Genoa, Italy in 2001, and to submit a final report at the Summit meeting in Kananaskis. But in the end, the final report was not produced and the project was handed over to the U.N. for further pursuit, which as far as I know eventually vanished into the void.

In the mean time, the ITU hosted the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Switzerland in December 2003, which gathered a wide range of participants from governments, international organizations, business entities and NGOs, to tackle the issue of the digital divide. This forum adopted visions and action plans similar to those presented at the Summit meetings, but these have not materialized yet into any effective measures.

Recognizing the strategic importance of this region, Japan put forward the Asia Broadband Program in 2002. It was the first time for Japan to propose such a specific plan in the effort to enhance regional cooperation and international support in the field of IT. Then in 2003, the Japanese government adopted a plan dubbed the Asia IT Initiative to enhance international cooperation with Asian countries with regard to IT developments. Eventually the two measures were merged into "e-Japan Strategy II" in 2003 as a part of the formal government policy task.


This has certainly been a step in the right direction for Japan to take, but there are concerns.

First is funding. Japan's financial assistance to Asian countries is customarily assumed to take the form of ODA, but the current ODA scheme is not necessarily suited for such tasks. For example, the ODA scheme expects the recipient country to apply with a specific project plan. But IT investments often do not require a large sum of money in a short period of time. Rather, such a program requires smaller installments for a long period of time, as in education.

Also, as the ODA scheme assumes the form of bilateral assistance, it does not fit well with plans such as developing the Internet in a region encompassing a multiple number of countries. The commitment of 15 billion dollars in assistance at the Kyushu-Okinawa Summit had won huge expectations among developing countries, but for these reasons the actual amount disbursed has been minimal.

In addition, there is the problem of speed, in that it takes an average three years before an ODA project is approved. Good news is that the government and businesses have begun earlier this year to review the ODA scheme, so there may be improvements on these problems in the near future.

The second issue is rather technical: the handling of character codes. Software applications to be used internationally should be developed to cope with various languages, but 75% of usage in this field is currently dominated by English. Of course, the very basics of information reside in language and characters, on which people's knowledge is constituted. Thus, various languages and characters must not be oppressed by the Internet. Business entities such as Microsoft have been reluctant to address this issue as it has not been attractive from the business point of view, but the recent pervasion of Linux is seemingly drawing more attention of developers toward this subject. To obtain full benefit from IT development, conditions on which developing countries could benefit from the Internet should quickly be established.

Last but not least of the issues is human resource development in developing countries. These countries must have the will to establish an Internet society themselves. The initiative must be taken by the local people, and the people carrying the vision must be educated and trained.

The Canadian government has a program to support developing countries in this respect called PAN-Asia Networking Program, which provides for both funding and training. Korea has already been active in governmental aid and cooperation but also has recently established the "Overseas IT Volunteers' Group" system by which capable experts are sent to developing countries to train the people there.

In Japan, The Center of the International Cooperation for Computerization (CICC), a METI (Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry) related public-interest entity, has been active for more than 10 years in international IT support activities, but has not grown to be a large trend. Assistance measures must be adjusted to cope with the needs of each region and respective countries, by calling for cooperation of experts from various sectors such as government, businesses, universities, NPOs.

Although the intra-region flow of goods in Asia surpasses that of Europe/America, flow of information lags terribly behind them in this region. It is necessary to break out of this situation quickly, which is a major prerequisite in establishing a mutually beneficial Asian economic area.

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