NEW YORK: The digital divide persists between developed and developing countries, even in regions like Europe, according to a report released Wednesday that examined the success of 142 countries in using information and communications technology to boost economic competitiveness.
The 441-page report by the World Economic Forum uses a broad range of measures to rank countries on the success of their overall efforts to use such ICT technology to improve business, government and the lives of individuals.
At the top of the list are advanced economies – Sweden, Singapore, Finland, Denmark, Switzerland, Netherlands, Norway, United States, Canada and Britain. At the bottom are many poor countries in sub-Saharan Africa as well as Nepal, Syria, East Timor and Haiti.
“Despite all the efforts that we have seen in the past, the digital divide still exists between developing countries and developed countries,” Benat Bilbao-Osorio, associate director of the World Economic Forum’s Center for Global Competitiveness and Performance who co-authored the report. “The digital divide can be observed as well at the regional level.”
Co-author Soumitra Dutta, a business and technology professor at INSEAD, one of the world’s largest graduate schools of business with campuses in France, Singapore and Abu Dhabi, told a news conference launching the report that the world is becoming “hyper-connected” and it’s important to measure how technology is impacting government, business and individuals.
While technology and infrastructure are important, he said, there are many other aspects that are crucial, including whether the environment is conducive for businesses to use technology and encourages innovation, whether regulations support or inhibit transparency, whether ICT is affordable and accessible, and whether people have the skills to use it.
Christopher Vollmer, leader of the global media and entertainment practice at the management consulting firm Booz & Company, said “digitization has a very important positive impact” on all aspects of development.
“We found that economically, the more countries are able to move up the digitization index, it actually improves GDP performance, it’s associated with positive job growth and it’s very critical for innovation,” he said. It also improves the quality of life and has political benefits including greater transparency, better access to basic services, and improved performance in areas like education.
According to the report, “overall, Europe remains at the forefront of the efforts to leverage ICT to transform its economy and society.”
But it said there are disparities in the region, with advanced economies such as Germany and France behind the top-ranked Nordics at 16 and 23 respectively in the ranking and all four of the European Union’s southern countries –Portugal, Spain, Italy and Greece – lagging even farther behind. In the lowest tier are many Eastern European countries with Romania at 67, Albania at 68 and Bulgaria at 70.
Bilbao-Osorio said the United States was ranked 8, not higher, because the government and opposition have had difficulties addressing challenges to the economy in recent years.
China ranked highest of the world’s rising economic powers – the so-called BRICS countries – at 51. It was followed by Russia at 56, Brazil at 65, India at 69 and South Africa at 72.
“The big story is how India is falling behind in relative terms as far as its overall measure of technology and competitiveness is concerned,” INSEAD’s Dutta said. “A few years ago, India was ahead of China.”
Asia and the Pacific also have regional disparities.
Some of the world’s wealthiest, most innovative and digitized nations in the world – Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Australia and Japan – join Singapore in the top 20, the report said. But Asia also has some of the poorest, least-connected countries including Nepal, Tajikistan and Pakistan.
The report said Latin America and the Caribbean “continues to suffer from an important lage in adopting ICT and technology more broadly.” Chile is the top-ranked country in the region, at 39, with second-ranked Uruguay at 44.
The forum’s Bilbao-Osorio said the Latin American results “are a little bit disappointing, especially given the economic performance of the region in the last five to 10 years.” He said Latin America needs to improve ICT infrastructure, the skills and education level of its people, and the environment to maximize use of information and communications technology.
As for the Middle East, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are in the lead and have recognized “the importance of ICT to diversify their economy,” as has Israel, ranked 20.
The report includes case studies of two countries that have invested heavily in ICT, Mauritius at 53, and Azerbaijan at 61.
Dutta said the key to improving ICT performance is “the mindset” of the country’s leader.