Yesterday in Geneva the Digital Solidarity Fund was launched, with the support of 120 towns and cities, as well as France, Switzerland, Algeria, Marocco, Senegal, to bring the benefits of the information revolution to the developing world. Meanwhile, debate continues online about the digital divide and market-led solutions.
The Digital Solidarity Fund the brainchild of the president of Senegal, Abdoulaye Wade, is intended to develop new funding to bridge the digital divide. There are two novel aspects of the fund as it stands, it is primarily being driven by local authorities and it will raise funds from alternative funding sources.
Basically here is how it works. A township or village or city agrees to apply the "Geneva principle," which stipulates that all public contracts for ICT work will set aside 1% to go toward the Digital Solidarity Fund. A tri-partite "college" of government, business and civil society determine how the funds collected are to be disbersed, with a large majority going to the developing world but also some small percentage going to under-served communities in the developed world.
Other funding can be collected by direct donations to the DSF from individuals, organizations, companies and governments.
The projects funded by the DSF are intended to be mostly capacity-building and training at the community level, rather than large scale ICT infrastructure projects. I.e. local "telecentres" not undersea cables and satellites.
The World Bank and the ECONOMIST have already poo-pooed the idea of the fund, saying that market forces and cell phones are already set to bridge the Digital Divide well ahead of the WSIS targets.
Many Western government delegations at the WSIS Prepcom 2 last month were skeptical about the need for a new fund, noting that many funding sources -- public and private sector -- already existed, but what was needed was more coordination and focus of that funding to the most pressing ICT needs. Meanwhile many developing country delegations, mostly but not exclusively from Africa, supported the idea of the DSF and wanted stronger language in the Summit supporting the Fund. Instead, the WSIS merely "welcomes" the Fund but does not explicitly endorse it.
Meanwhile on the WSIS civil society plenary email list, we have been debating the ECONOMIST article and the role of the private sector market in bridging the digital divide. Tracy Naughton, journalist/activist from South Africa, notes some of the practical and poignant effects of cell phones on South African society:
Though many people in Kguatswane (a village in Limpopo Province, South Africa) can be described as functionally illiterate many are able to operate a cell phone and recognise the language of cell phones....
...The arrival of the cell phone in this community was described as the heralding of a new era. The area had been quite isolated during the Apartheid era and traditional life went on. The cell phone, which one only needed the ability to speak to use, and which had no wires, had the ripple on impact of awareness of a world outside the village area.
An example was given of an older women who had been given money by her father to provide for her grandsons. She was ready to purchase building materials for a home, and cows, in order to establish them in the village. The arrival of cell phones prompted her to consider other opportunities for the grandsons and she funded their educations, starting with the basic computer training at the Kguatswane Centre.