The United Nations Development Program’s annual Human Development Report is usually a pretty grim document. Sure, life is improving for most people, but the poorest seem to get poorer and the gap between haves and have-nots is continually widening. The richest 20 percent of the world’s population has 86 percent of world GDP; the bottom fifth has only 1 percent. The rising tide of globalization may lift all boats, but the numbers tell a different story. In 1960, the income gap between the world’s richest fifth and poorest fifth was 30 to 1; in 1997, the spread had reached 74 to 1.

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This year’s report differs from its predecessors in the attention it gives to the Internet and the impact of the wired world. It’s not a pretty picture.

That top 20 percent also comprises 93.3 percent of the world’s Internet users and 74 percent of its phone users. The United States has more computers than the rest of the world combined. Bulgaria, a country rarely mistaken for a cyberparadise, has more Internet hosts than the whole of sub-Saharan Africa, excluding South Africa. South Asia, with 23 percent of the world’s population, has less than 1 percent of the world’s Netizens.

Within countries, the divisions are just as stark: Sex, education and income separate users from nonusers in every country.

Do these numbers matter when so many people just struggle to stay alive? Of course they do. The digital economy is the future. Deny people the ability to get online and they can’t catch up. Forget the rising tide: Those poor folks are going to be strapped to the pier when the tsunami rolls in.

All that stuff about the promise of a timeless, borderless world isn’t bunk. India and Israel have developed world-beating software sectors. Their distance from the center of world economic activity is irrelevant. The HDR notes that some east Caribbean nations have been able to use their low-skilled labor to carve out niches in data-processing services.

The Net has given governments in poor countries access to information and specialists that they never had — or could afford — before. The report also rightly points out how the Net has empowered nongovernmental organizations and helped recalibrate the global balance of power.

But the bottom line still drops like a guillotine. A PC costs the average U.S. citizen a month’s wage and the average resident of Bangladesh eight years’ income.

The report concludes, “The network society is creating parallel communication systems: one for those with income and education; the other for those without connections, blocked by high barriers of time, cost and uncertainty and dependent on outdated information. … New information and communications technologies … are polarizing the world into the connected and the isolated.”

Increasing access to knowledge has to proceed on two levels. The first step concerns the legal framework for intellectual property. Simply put, money is the single most important factor here. That means, says the report, that “poor people and poor countries risk being pushed to the margin in this proprietary regime controlling the world’s knowledge.”

The second step is getting more people online. That can be an expensive proposition, especially when poor countries have so many other and more basic priorities.

The HDR mentions a bit tax, perhaps on large e-mail, to finance development projects. Predictably, that was the most controversial item in the report (massive inequalities are OK, but God forbid new taxes); the U.N. distanced itself from the idea after it was slammed by U.S. Congress members.

Actually, the U.S. beef was against the use of American money for international projects, and there is a good reason to be stingy: the U.S.’ own digital divide. Just before the UNDP released its study, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration released its third report on the gap between digital haves and have-nots in the U.S. It too reaches disturbing conclusions.

As U.S. Internet use soars — more than one-quarter of all households have Net access — the digital divide is widening. Households with income of $75,000 or more are more than 20 times more likely to have Net access than those at the lowest income levels. Gaps between white and black/Hispanic households have grown six percentage points since 1994. Between 1997 and 1998, the divide between the highest and lowest education levels grew 25 percent, and between the highest and lowest income levels, 29 percent.

What can bridge this “grotesque gap,” as the UNDP calls it? One option is to supply Net access points at schools, libraries and community centers. This approach is also used by the scientific community in less developed countries. In Mexico, 100 research institutes and hospitals have been linked together to pool resources. In southern India, two dozen small villages are being wired to provide health and agriculture information.

Tumbling costs will help the poor find their way online, but there is still a long way to go. According to one study, five hours of Net access a month in Angola for a year costs $1,740 — more than the average Angolan’s annual salary.

MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte has waxed enthusiastic about the “freedom” less developed countries now have: They can skip cables and wires and go straight to wireless. It sounds good, but they still need a considerable infrastructure, and even those investments are budget-busters. Then think a minute about cell phones in places without running water or medical care …

Worse, in the world’s poorest countries, the chief obstacles are even more fundamental: plain old illiteracy and governments that resist giving their citizens access to free and unfettered information.

Old, old problems — you’d think we’d have made more progress by now.

(Brad Glosserman)