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Issues in the Asia-Pacific context
The book of which this chapter forms a part is a unique collaboration brought into being by the combined vision of APDIP of UNDP, PAN-IDRC of Canada, Orbicom of UNESCO Chairs in Communications, and Southbound in Penang. It is the product of a great many minds and hearts, but especially it represents the financial investment of a range of UN-supported organisations and agencies. Through the UN, voices of countries excluded from many forums of rich and powerful nations can be heard. These excluded countries are often aware that their voices are not heard or are ignored. This situation creates a context within which a country’s concerns about relative information poverty, and its resulting oppression in global forums, may be amplified. Indeed, after the events of 2003 and the run-up to the second Gulf War, many people are pessimistic about the UN being able to reach its potential as an effective voice for justice and inclusive participation in global democracy – even if the international response to the tragic aftermath of the Asian tsunami in December 2004 has brought a new sense of interconnectedness.
Interestingly, at both the national and local levels, the information poor who are frustrated with their circumstances are unlikely to participate in discussions about information and communication policy: they protest instead, or try to find creative ways around the impasse. For example, citizens of poorer nations are often excluded from access to ICT networks owing to a lack of appropriate fonts for their written language. Cambodia and Bhutan are two of the many countries whose national governments are working hard to help their populations access the digital world using their mother tongue.1 If ingenuity fails, and people become more vocal – making demands to redress the situation of information imbalance – these protesters tend not to be categorised by the rich as “information poor”, but as being “unreasonable” or “unrealistic”. At the international level, the history of the New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO) is an example of a group of countries making “unreasonable demands” to redress an unacceptable level of information poverty.
The new world information and communication order
In the 1970s and 1980s, a number of nations used a UN education and cultural forum, UNESCO, to demand greater global equity in terms of access to, and distribution of, information and communication resources. At that time, they were particularly concerned about access to satellite technologies and claiming space in geostationary orbit above their own countries. Their actions resulted in the USA and the UK deserting UNESCO and depriving it of funding on the grounds that it had been “politicised” (Savage, 1989).
Information poverty, as the NWICO countries argued, is a two-edged sword. Not only is there a lack of access for the poor as consumers of information and communication products, but there is a corresponding lack of access for the poor as producers of such products – and no realistic editorial control over the content produced by the information-powerful others. The information-rich countries control the representations of the information poor and select images congruent with preexisting perceptions and prejudices. A similar dynamic can be seen to operate when considering the situation of the relatively information-poor population groups and societies in any country: they control neither the agenda nor the content of public debates. In Laos, for example, government agencies in the provinces have had to use floppy disks to send information collected in the regions to the capital for processing, while telephone density in Myanmar has been estimated at less than 1 percent. This digital divide, both inside the country and between poor and rich countries, has obvious implications for the future development of ICT, particularly if a government does not commit itself to providing universal communication access (as a right, regardless of commercial viability). This situation contrasts almost obscenely with Australia, where so much emphasis is put on the web delivery of government services that those without access queue for long periods, or make long telephone calls, to gain equivalent information.
The information rich – at the level of the household and of the nation – are wealthy according to a range of indicators, and they are likely to be perceived as rich as well as information rich. It may not be technology access that makes them rich; instead, their technology access may be only one of a number of traits, a privilege that reveals wealth rather than confers it. Arguably, most of the information rich in consumer societies are ignorant of the lives and aspirations of people they class as information poor, and the information poor have few opportunities to communicate back to them as equals in discussions about rights and responsibilities. In some nations, such as Timor-Leste, the comparative lack of Internet-connected computers is only one of numerous challenges facing the country.
Poor communication impoverishes us all
Arguing that communication is linked to the development of understanding and collaboration, this chapter suggests that the world is paying a high price for policies that perpetuate and deepen the communication gulf between rich and poor nations. Even the most powerful nations on the globe live in fear when they choose not to listen to, or understand, what other countries and cultures try to tell them. We all suffer from communication imbalance.
The UN and other global organisations (including the global religious, environmental, and peace and justice movements) have worked to create the forums and the contexts in which authentic two-way communication can occur. Different countries are also addressing the challenge of communication within and between diverse groups. One way of doing this is to harness new tools of e-governance2 to help create a coherent view of what it is that the nation cares about most strongly: where its priorities lie between a range of agendas, including healthcare, education, economic growth and human rights. Hong Kong offers good examples of such e-discussions. We should not wait for communication within countries to become perfect before we work on improving communication between countries, cultures and societies. These two endeavours can progress hand in hand.