|This district superintendent in Zimbabwe has a phone in his house, but it doesn’t ring. He has to climb a hill to make his cell phone work. Photo by KATHY GILBERT / UMNS|
United Methodists join the fight
to narrow the ‘digital divide’
by Ginny Underwood and Joey Butler
As fast as the Internet has exploded into every corner of the world, so have the issues associated with this ultimate form of communication.
The rapid increase in the use of tools like the Internet and the vital information transmitted by those means have highlighted a widening gap between those able to access the tools and benefit from the information and those without access. This gap has been named the “digital divide.”
According to www.digitaldivide.org, a Web site studying the phenomenon, research in the mid-’90s focused on who is connected. Since then, the key question has become who is served. Even when the poor get access, they often have low quality access; bad access worsens the divide.
Bridging the digital divide, building community and creating a ministry of presence were among the goals of the eight-member delegation representing the United Methodist Church at the World Summit on Information Society, convened Nov. 16-18, 2005, in Tunis, Tunisia, by the United Nations. Summit participants addressed concerns of human rights, access to information, Internet governance and the gap between the haves and have-nots in global technology.
The divide is not solely an Internet issue, but involves any means of communicating information, be it computer, radio or telephone.
Many argue that those in extreme poverty need clean water and jobs before they need computers. But efforts to improve the water supply, enhance rural health and education, generate jobs or address any of the other interrelated problems of poverty require access to digital networks.
“Technology should be a tool, a medium put to use for health, wholeness and well-being of everyone,” said Glory Dharmaraj, a summit participant and executive secretary of justice education for the United Methodist Women’s Division.
“The church is adept (in) the language of ethics and values,” said the Rev. Liberato C. Bautista, a summit participant and General Board of Church and Society staff executive assigned to the United Nations. “The language that includes empowerment, human rights, sharing of resources and creating sustainability is important and needed to be included in this process.”
Bautista said a major stumbling block is identifying who politically governs and finances the Internet.
“Governments, civil society and the private sector are critical stakeholders. That’s where the church can play a role in public policy advocacy and sharing information,” he said. “The greater population does not have access to these technologies, and the church (can) address the economic divide.”
Bridging the divide
|In Zimbabwe, children are used to carry mail out into the community. Photo by KATHY GILBERT / UMNS|
Summit participant Marthe Dansokho is a regional United Methodist missionary and a social worker in Senegal. She spends her time working with young women who either left school early or never attended at all. When the women are offered computer training, the digital divide becomes apparent.
“We know 65 percent of women in Senegal are not literate, they don’t go to school and don’t know how to read or write,” Dansokho said. “This technical language is not for them.”
Not only is communications a human rights issue; it’s ultimately a justice issue. “The infrastructure that will make the efficient and sustainable flow of information and knowledge that is nondiscriminatory and therefore participatory is not possible without the necessary economic structure,” Bautista said.
Dharmaraj said the role of the church is to ask the difficult questions: Do these information communication technologies promote community or do they create further division? Is the benefit for everyone?
“The general church’s role is to be informed and raise awareness,” she added. “We have a greater responsibility as Christians living in the United States to raise a prophetic voice.”
Dharmaraj is preparing a kit to help local churches discuss issues raised at the summit. It will be available in 2006 through the Women’s Division. In 2007, United Methodist Communications will hold a digital summit.
United Methodist Communications is also partnering with U.S. annual conferences to provide the central conferences with computers, cameras, camcorders and training in their use. (See “Information to live by” in this issue.)
As for the work of the governments participating in the summit, follow-up forums will be organized in 2007. The first will address Internet governance.
—Ginny Underwood, executive director of the Media Group at United Methodist Communications. Joey Butler, managing editor, Interpreter.
What is the United Methodist Church’s stance on the digital divide?
The resolution “Proper Use of Information Communication Technologies” (The Book of Resolutions 2004, p. 941) calls the church “to affirm that the right to communicate and to access information is a basic human right, essential to human dignity and to a just and democratic society.” The statement was adopted by the 2004 General Conference.
The divide, in numbers
• 1 billion people worldwide lack connection to any kind of information and communication technology.
• There are more than eight times as many Internet users in the United States than on the entire African continent.
• There are still 30 countries with Internet penetration of less than 1 percent.
• In 2004, Africa accounted for 13 percent of the world’s population, but only 3.7 percent of all fixed and mobile telephone subscribers worldwide.
• In the Asia-Pacific region, Internet penetration ranges from less than 1 percent in countries like Bangladesh, Cambodia and Laos, to more than 65 percent in countries like Australia and the Republic of Korea.
*Source: International Telecommunication Union