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To bridge the digital divide we need a division of labor

We've all heard of the digital divide. Well, the same thing that caused it – uneven access and skills when it comes to digital technology– should be used to cure it.

We can redress the imbalances in economic and social well-being caused by digital exclusion by deliberately re-targeting internet access and IT literacy where they are most needed

This is true in developed as well as developing countries and among those disadvantaged by ethnicity or age as well as by poverty.

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The Network Readiness Index published by the World Economic Forum assesses the readiness of 148 countries to harness the potential of information and communications technology. But it does not address how governments, NGOs and corporations should plug the gaps in digital inclusion among specific disadvantaged groups.

We need to ask: who is actually helping out specific communities? What are the conditions necessary for these initiatives to succeed? And what should the world's leaders assembling at Davos do to foster more inclusive, digitally driven growth?

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Who's making it happen?

Charities, governments and corporations all have a role. In the case of extreme poverty in developing countries, charities are taking the lead, often with the backing of corporations.

There are many great examples, like the Katha IT and E-commerce School which provides digital skills classes in Delhi's slums; or SOS Children's Villages, which has brought broadband access via satellite to 20 remote locations in Africa.

But solving social problems through digital inclusion is not confined to developing countries. Developed nations like the UK also have pockets of deprivation being eased through focused digital inclusion projects.

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Here it tends to be government taking the lead on policy, with the corporate and "third sectors" – charities and voluntary organizations -- collaborating on implementation. Cross-sector initiatives can have real impact at a local and national level. In the UK, the three-year Get IT Together programme helped 30,000 people build digital skills and confidence, and benefit from life online.

Despite the phenomenon of the silver surfer, age is still a serious barrier to digital inclusion. Even in the UK, some 60 per cent of people over the age of 65 have never been online compared to 18 per cent of all adults.

Tom Wright, Chief Executive of Age UK stresses the importance of partnership in combatting this: "Our activity at ground level has repeatedly shown that imaginative partnerships between government, industry and the voluntary sector are key to bringing about digital equality."

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What's necessary for success?

Focus

Including the excluded is all about selective focus – targeting initiatives precisely where they are needed. This often begins on a small scale and at a grassroots level. It may be underpinned by government policy, but is most likely led by a charity, with multinationals getting involved later on.

Synergy

For anyone to win, everyone has to win. Initiatives will be successful only when governments get to fulfil a policy commitment, communities get online, NGOs get operational benefits, and corporations stimulate economic activity in their key markets.

Return

Digital inclusion projects should demonstrate their social return on investment. We developed a social return on investment (SROI) model that showed the value of the Get IT Together project was £3.70 for every £1 invested.

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Vision

Governments exist for the well-being of their citizens; charities for the good of their beneficiaries. But corporations need a clear vision here too. Just giving people digital access won't solve the world's problems. But combining that technology with vision, creativity and bold leaps of imagination just might.

Who would have thought, for example, that following years of personal struggle, Aboriginal Australian, Michael McCloud, would not only set up Australia's first indigenous ISP and his own highly successful web collaboration reseller business, Message Stick, but go on to establish a minority supplier umbrella organisation.

Supply Nation has channelled AUS $17 million procurement dollars from government and corporate customers into 228 indigenous businesses in just five years. "We are fundamentally changing the mind set of Aboriginal people right across Australia," he says, "a transformation that is strongly supported by the Federal government."

This is proof that the combination of a creative vision and targeted application of technology can produce some truly stunning social and economic benefits.

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What should those at Davos do?

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The governmental, NGO and corporate leaders assembling at Davos need to buy into a shared vision of inclusive growth. It's not someone else's responsibility to look after those excluded from the benefits of digital, economic and social progress. It's ours. We're leaders: we must show leadership.

Even if the benefits to one's own organisation are not immediately obvious (admittedly more of an issue for the corporate sector) we should take the long-term view. The digitally excluded of today are the online customers of tomorrow.

So whether our motivation is duty, altruism or commercial interest, we must collaborate in selective digital inclusion projects to eradicate social and economic exclusion and eventually deliver benefit for all.

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Luis Alvarez is Chief Executive of BT Global Services