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UN Warns Poor Countries Need to Cross 'Digital Divide' - 2002-06-18

U.N. officials warn many of the world's poorest countries will remain economically backward unless they are "wired" for information and communication technology. Digital experts, communications specialists and government representatives gathered in New York Monday to discuss ways of bridging the digital gap between rich and developing nations.

People in developed countries take their computers and Internet services for granted. But in developing regions, where most of the world's people live, that digital connectivity, mostly does not exist. U.N. figures show two-thirds of humankind is still excluded from the benefits of the digital revolution.

Yet experts continue to warn that poor countries need to harness the new technology to development strategies or risk staying outside the global economy.

Secretary-General Kofi Annan, in opening remarks to the U.N. meeting, noted many people and institutions have tried but failed to bridge the gap. "Despite commendable efforts and various initiatives, we are still very far from ensuring that the benefits of ICT [information and communication technology] are available to all," Mr. Annan said. The digital divide still yawns as widely as ever, with billions of people still unconnected to a global society, which, on its side, is more and more wired."

Leading multinational companies, such as software giant Microsoft and computer hardware provider Hewlett-Packard, have signed up to help. They have already pledged at least 20 percent of their annual corporate philanthropy budgets to promoting programs that will enable developing countries to utilize the new technology. Many countries lack the infrastructure.

The commitment may be there. But the task apparently is not easy, given the involvement of both the public and private sectors.

"I would be misleading you if I did not admit that it is quite challenging to figure out successful models of collaboration across the sectors," said Debra Dunn, a vice president at Hewlett-Packard. "We have different ways of doing things, different ways of thinking. And I think it is a learning experience for everyone who is participating."

No one expects the two-day meeting to lead to one big, over-arching initiative. But U.N. officials hope the discussions will point to clear areas for cooperation.