Meeting of the SI Committee on the Economy, Social Cohesion and the Environment, Mexico City

1-2 October 2001

Bridges across the Digital Divide: The Role of Education in the 21st Century

A new map of the world

With the end of the Cold War, old ideological divisions are over. Virtually all countries proclaim allegiance to global markets. But a more intractable division is taking hold, this time based on the creation, possession and imposition of technology. A small part of the globe, accounting for some 15 per cent of the earth's population, provides nearly all of the world's technological innovations. A second part, involving perhaps half of the world's population, is able to adopt these technologies in production and consumption. The remaining part, covering around a third of the world's population, is technologically disconnected, neither innovating at home nor adopting technologies from abroad.

While significant technological differences in themselves are not new in humankind's history, they have new implications and effects in a world which, while being segmented technologically, is steadily integrating economically. Low-skill and low-technology production will be pushed aside by more productive forms of agricultural or industrial production based on state-of-the-art technology in the "technopoles" of the world. This technological divide has been seriously aggravated by the development of new key technologies in the last thirty years and will accelerate further with the emergence of new key technologies like genetic engineering and the development of new materials.

The whole continent of Africa, except South Africa, has less internet traffic than Manhattan - not to speak of New York City as a whole. But not only are Third World countries losing in the digital race. Also old industrial or semi-industrial regions - especially in Eastern Europe - are threatened by this digital divide. The gains derived from the use of the technology show a marked distinction among the users, as is the case of the new economy versus people who use the internet as merely a leisure pursuit.

At the same time, the digital divide is cutting across the old North-South and First World-Third World boundaries. Nevertheless almost 98 per cent of Asia's population, 98 per cent in Latin America and 99.5 per cent in Africa are not connected to the World Wide Web, there are some cases in which the internet market is rapidly growing although the total percentage of internet users is still rather small. While in 1990 86 per cent of the internet users were US citizens, today this country counts only for about one third of global internet users. In 2005 China will have more internet users than the USA. Internet use is more widespread among Korean youngsters than among Germans of the same age. And finally, the industrial boom of North East and parts of South East Asia is, to a high degree, based on microelectronics - a technological revolution, that has been turning countries like Korea or Taiwan into first-rate technological innovators and driving the industrial transformation of coastal regions of China and parts of India - the two most populated countries of the earth.

Once again, a technological revolution is changing the economic and social landscape of the world. New industries arise, old industries disappear. New technologies allow for new forms of industrial production based on a new worldwide division of labour. Traditional blue collar jobs in the industrial sector of the western industrial centres disappear or "migrate" to the countries where labour is significantly cheaper, and in some cases minimum labour standards are not met. At the same time knowledge-based forms of production are replacing the resource-based forms of accumulation in the old OECD countries. This has significant implications for the social structures of the industrial countries and for those countries that are able to integrate successfully into the new international division of labour.

The human factor

The digital divide is not only an international phenomenon. It also takes hold inside societies and states. "Have nets" and "have nots" exist not only on a global scale but also inside any single given country. While new technologies are taking hold, politicians responsible to their electorates and the democratic political parties have to give answers to the question of how to deal with the new exclusions and divisions created by these transformations.

The generational and gender gap are other dimensions of the digital divide. The new technoIogy is used mainly by young people between the ages of 15 and 24 and very little by people over 55. Men use the technology more than women. Both of these factors may potentially contribute to social inequality.

One thing seems obvious: the shift from resource-based towards knowledge-based industrial production and value creation implies a renewed attention for the human factor. Human creativity, human knowledge, human intelligence are the key productive forces of the future. This implies that major efforts have to be laid on apprenticeships and training. Unfortunately, statistics do not show that the countries which are not highly industrialised are catching up in this aspect. Some of the developing countries are economically not able to spend the same percentage of their GDP on public education as do most of the OECD countries. The same holds true for research and development expenditures, which are to a high degree concentrated in the innovator countries, which are making a sustained effort to increase the percentage of GDP invested in education.

But insufficient investment on the development of human resources is not the only problem in this respect. There are others, like illiteracy, teacher training, obsolete education systems, particularly in primary education, where methods need to change and continuity has to be ensured between the various levels of education. To overcome these problems is a common obligation of every single state, depending on its economic ability, and of the international community, especially the international financial institutions. Education must be seen as a process of social inclusion which, together with policies aimed at ensuring a democratic learning culture, will provide elements for social identity and commitment.

The Committee will continue to review the issue of the global free movement of scientists and experts and the brain drain, as well as their social and economic consequences.

The role of states

States have to play an active role in building bridges over the digital divide and create opportunities which private actors - individuals or enterprises - can seize. It is not without interest to see how the world's leading digital nation, the USA, has acted in this respect.

In the USA, the state has not only invested heavily in the creation of technical infrastructure of the internet age, the Data Highway programme, initiated in 1993. It has also invested far more than other countries in programmes aiming at bridging the domestic digital divide between the "users" and the "losers". Reacting to America's domestic digital divide, the Federal Government alone is spending annually about US$5.5 billion on the creation of infrastructures and internet access for public institutions. In 1998/99 US$6.5 billion was spent on internet access for schools.

The role of education becomes important if teachers are seen as active researchers who adapt the use of IT to the type of learning and to learning the technology. Education is a process of social inclusion which is constantly disrupted by the non-continuity of political plans which, among other things, lack a vision of the state.

In the USA the state has reduced the cost of using information and communication technologies by creating competition for which deregulation and privatisation supplied adequate preconditions. In this respect the USA could serve as an example for other states. Public funding is absolutely necessary, not only for basic education, but also for facilitating access to information and communication technologies. The USA example demonstrates that bridging the digital divide both nationally and internationally is impossible without public expenditure, either from national budgets or from international assistance.

Deregulation and privatisation do not suffice unless conditions for effective competition are assured. This implies free access to markets from outside, including the telecommunication infrastructure.

The way ahead

Social democratic governments, especially, have to give answers to the problems of the technologically divided world - at the national as well as at the international level. At the national level, especially in the OECD countries, the answer seems relatively clear: investing in research and development, education and training, in re-organising and modernising the educational sector and increasing efforts that enable technologically disadvantaged social groups which set their hopes in social democracy. One of the most critical aspects is a lack of development and administration of the creative talent in science, art and technology.

At the same time, there are few encouraging signs in the broader field of general industrial development. Some countries have been able to nurture national enterprises able to compete internationally, not only in the field of production, but also in the field of innovation and research and development. But these centres of technological excellence outside the traditional industrial countries are few. Most have been created thanks to an active industrial policy of the state. This holds true for almost all of the success stories of non-European industrial development in the world after World War II. In an open global economy active national industrial politics become ever more difficult. Under such conditions the key actors of successful technological development - competitive private companies - emerge only with great difficulty in Third World countries.

Nevertheless, there still exist several ways which can be explored to help the technologically disconnected countries to narrow the technological gap:

- National politics have to put more attention on apprenticeship and training;

- International co-operation has in some cases to be rethought: more attention has to be paid to the creation of high-quality training and apprenticeship. Elite institutions such as universities and scientific training facilities have to be valued for their vital role in the process of development.

- Within the framework of the World Trade Organisation, the General Service Agreement has a considerable impact on education: existing plans to expand the functions of this agreement strengthen the privatisation of this sector. This may lead to increased interest and eventually to the private financing of education, which means that perhaps education should be made an exception.

- The possibilities for Third World countries to build up proper technological capacities have to be improved. This has implications especially for the WTO system and for the future trade negotiations on trade-related intellectual property rights (TRIPs). This may require also the right to partially and selectively opt out of the WTO system if this seems necessary for successful industrial development. The Civil society, including the private sector and NGOs, trade unions and other stakeholders is called upon to support the UN plan and develop complementary programmes of their own.

- Since the beginning of 2000, international institutions have started to pay more attention to the technology gap. Initiated by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, the United Nations set up an Information and Communications Technology Task Force. The G8 Okinawa Summit in July 2000 passed the "Okinawa Charter on the Global Information Technology" and established a Digital Opportunity Task Force to analyse the risks of a worldwide digital divide and to identify ways in which the digital revolution can benefit all the world´s people, especially the poorest and most marginalised groups. The Socialist International should follow with great attention these activities and should review its possibilities to accompany and to make its own contribution to the global effort of bridging the Digital Gap.