The digital divide describes the gap between those who have access to information and communication technology and those who do not. The gap can be based on many factors: age, geography, economic status, etc. It plagues not only impoverished and developing countries, but also affects wealthy countries where, for example, the elderly may have much lower access to use of new technologies such as the internet and mobile phones.
There are a variety of organizations working to combat the digital divide. One such organization is the 50×15 Foundation. This organization’s mission is to provide “affordable Internet access and computing capacity to 50 percent of the world’s population by 2015.” By providing these resources to communities formerly without or with costly Internet and computer access, 50×15 provides many people with access to financial services, job hunting, healthcare information, education, and global communication and commerce.
50×15 works with partners around the globe to accelerate the rate of digital inclusion. The organization focuses specifically on high-growth markets. At this time, 50×15 is focusing on initiatives in Africa where only 54 million of 1 billion people currently have access to the Internet. 50×15 has also launched emergency learning labs in the wake of natural disasters like Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. To date, they have launched more than 30 learning labs in more than a dozen countries.
The 50×15 approach focuses on achieving development through economic growth, an important development strategy over the last several decades of Western thought. 50×15 does this by promoting connections between infrastructure providers, government institutions, and consumers. The organization believes that access to technology will fuel economic growth by providing opportunities in manufacturing and product design, service provision, infrastructure development, and entrepreneurship. As 50×15’s website states “bridging the digital divide isn’t just an act of goodwill; it’s good business.”
In order to promote sustainability, 50×15 works with partner organizations and companies, focusing on the following six areas of development:
- Power: grid-based, solar, or manual power generation
- Connectivity: wired, wireless, or satellite service providers
- Devices: servers, personal computers, thin clients, smart-phones, and other tools to help people access the internet
- Financing: government programs, financial institutions, and foundations that provide micro-loans and other means of helping local people afford Internet access tools and services
- Content: locally relevant software applications and information available in multiple languages
- Expertise: training, repair services, and general ecosystem support
- Structure design: pre-planning for technology when designing a building
50×15 is an interesting example of a public-private entity working to bridge the digital divide. 50×15 has demonstrated success. As Flavio Pimenta of Brazil states, “Our collaboration [with the 50×15 Foundation] has put us on a path to creating a beautiful future, building something together that will deliver fruits for our children and also be completely self-sustaining.” However, despite success stories like this, many might argue that 50×15’s focus on generating economic growth is an oversimplified, neoliberal agenda. Economic growth is, without a doubt, one aspect of international development. However, many, including myself, would argue that other factors such as quality of life, reduction of inequality, and empowerment are equally important development goals. 50×15 seems to have a fairly one-dimensional approach to the issue of the digital divide and, because of this, may be missing out on opportunities to make an even greater impact.