[CAIRO] Information and communication technologies (ICTs) can help reduce poverty, but most countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America and the Caribbean are failing to harness them adequately, with "disappointing" results in the world's rankings, according to a report.
Meanwhile, several countries in the Middle East and North Africa — where the Internet played a role in recent democracy uprisings — feature among the top 50 of this year's Global Information Technology Report's rankings, produced by the World Economic Forum and INSEAD business school.
The report ranked 138 countries through the Networked Readiness Index, a measure of a country's capacity to benefit from new technologies both in terms of its global competitiveness and the impact on its citizens' lives.
"ICT has shown its revolutionary power as a key catalyst for change, modernisation, and innovation, and one can safely predict this trend will only accelerate," said Soumitra Dutta, one of report's editors and a professor of business and technology at the INSEAD business school in France.
The report suggests two ways in which ICTs can benefit the poor. One is by using them in businesses of direct relevance to farmers and fishermen in low-income countries. The other stems from the direct employment of individuals in the emerging ICT sector in which the poor are not just passive consumers, but active participants in the production of ICT goods and services.
Countries can boost their ICT performance by establishing better infrastructure and making new technologies more available to their populations, according to the report, which also calls for a holistic, poverty-focused approach to use of ICTs.
Success stories include Costa Rica, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam.
Costa Rica's government has promoted investment in education and reduced taxes to encourage technology transfer and foreign investments, ensuring rapid and sustainable ICT growth.
Similarly, the country that has progressed the most over the past five years — Vietnam — did so owing to its government's vision of the ICT sector as a priority and key for national competitiveness.
Saudi Arabia's ranking also rose, partly driven by YESSER, the National e-Government Program, which is increasing the efficiency of the public sector, while training skilled workforce that could benefit other aspects of its society as well..
But in some countries, like Egypt, ICT usage in business and the government is not keeping up with growing use by individuals.
"Corruption, wars and sectarian issues are common reasons for the African countries to lag," Yehea Ismail, an Egyptian computer scientist working at the Northwestern University, United States, told SciDev.Net. He added that each state had its own set of challenges.
"For example, the former Egyptian government has not taken serious enough steps to increase investments in the ICT sector. It did not even support institutional or individual efforts to develop it, but we hope that this attitude will be changed after the uprising".
Rowayda Sadek, assistant professor of communication at the Arab Academy for Science, Technology & Maritime Transport, Egypt, said: "By developing our communities' ability to deal with computers and Internet, we will increase their interactivity with the ICT, and will create more positive and productive individuals - like those youth who started the Arab Spring."
The 10th anniversary edition of the Global Information Technology Report (GITR) 2010–2011 was published last month (12 April).
Link to full report [9.95MB]
See below for a World Economic Forum video from the press conference on the report: