TOKYO (07/21/2000) - After more than a year of planning and two weeks of build-up meetings, the Okinawa Summit of leaders from the world's seven largest economic powers plus Russia begins Friday with information technology, and more specifically the digital divide, at the top of the agenda.
Under the chair of Japanese Prime Minister Yochiro Mori, leaders from the U.S., U.K., Germany, France, Italy, Canada and Russia will hold three days of talks on the islands, which are the far to the southwest of the Japanese mainland and more used to vacationers than heads of state.
Following the wishes of late Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, Mori is positioning much of the summit around the issue of how better to bridge the digital divide -- the gap that exists between information haves and have-nots both between rich and poor nations and within different regions or classes of a single country.
For Mori, at least, the digital divide is much closer to home. It was in June, as part of a visit to an elementary school while he was campaigning for re-election, that he touched a computer for the first time. "To tell you the truth, I am not computer literate. I touched a keyboard for the first time today to send an e-mail message to you. I was typing for 30 minutes," he told children at the school, according to Japan's Kyodo News.
In the run-up to the summit, G8 leaders have already received lots of advice and encouragement from various nongovernmental and industrial groups on how best to tackle the problem.
On Wednesday, at the request of the Japanese government, the World Economic Forum presented proposals from its members, the world's largest multinational corporations, on steps that could be taken. [See "Business Leaders Present Digital Divide Proposals," July 19.]Presenting the proposals, Klaus Schwab, founder and chairman of the World Economic Forum, called the digital divide "one of the foremost problems at the beginning of this century" and said the Forum members were ready to help if the G8 nations took the lead.
"It's clear that the G8 will make a major effort in this area. The World Economic Forum is ready to contribute, but we need to see the outcome of the G8 summit first," he said.
The talks have also received support from United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, who sent a letter to the summit calling on leaders to ensure that the G8 commit to bridging the divide. [See "Annan Calls on G8 to Address Digital Divide," July 12.]"I urge you to commit yourselves to the goal of making IT accessible to all the world's people, and to make a major commitment of resources for that purpose," said Annan in the letter. However, some already are skeptical whether the summit's final communique will go beyond words and commit money and resources to the problem.
Members of the World Economic Forum, while presenting details of their proposals to the press, said they hope the commitment will go beyond words. "We hope they will make a concrete commitment. It's in the interests of humankind," said Schwab. "Business can help the G8, but they must show the lead."
Taking the lead as chair of the summit, Japan has already answered some of these criticisms with a plan to push US$15 billion of aid, beyond its usual sum of development aid, into the job of bridging the digital divide over the next five years. Mori is expected at the summit to call on other governments to match its commitment.