Digital literacy rates, that is, the percent of the population that has regular access to the Internet, hit 80% in North America (U.S. and Canada) in 2013. Worldwide digital literacy rates are thought to approach 40%, with U.N. estimating that close to 50% of the world's population has little to no access to the Internet or even to a computer.
Although the recent trend shows improvement, Latin America continues to lag behind much of the rest of the world in digital literacy rates at just 48%. Not surprisingly, digital literacy rates are especially low in many rural areas. According to the UN's Global Information Technology Report 2013, the reasons for Latin America's laggard status are three-fold. "Although the region is vast and heterogeneous, three shared reasons for this lag can be identified: these countries all exhibit an insufficient investment in developing their ICT infrastructure, a weak skill base in the population because of poor educational systems that hinder society’s capacity to make an effective use of these technologies, and unfavorable business conditions that do not support the spur of entrepreneurship and innovation."
Image by Wesley Fryer.
Latin American Digital Literacy Rates
Argentina leads the way among Latin American nations with a respectable 66% digital literacy rate. Brazil's digital literacy rate is just 46%, but recent initiatives mean Brazil is now connecting its citizens to the Web at a faster rate than most other countries in the region. Mexico also lags behind, with a mere 37% digital literacy rate; experts within and outside of the country attribute ineffective government and the ongoing drug war as major obstacles to infrastructure development in Mexico. Digital literacy rates in urban areas in Mexico actually compare with those in the U.S., but rural areas are extremely underserved. Underdeveloped Nicaragua comes in at the bottom of the digital literacy rankings in Latin America, with an appalling 14% digital literacy rate.
Information and Communication Technology Infrastructure Deficits
Experts and policy analysts point out that that Latin America lags all other parts of the globe except Africa in information and communication technology infrastructure, and that this deficit poses a significant challenge for future development, particularly education. Some countries, notably Brazil, Chile and Peru have taken significant strides in terms of ICT infrastructure development in the last few years. Others, including Belize and Bolivia, continue to fall further behind. ICT infrastructure is critical in enabling remote education, which most experts agree is the single most important factor in bridging the digital divide.
Digital Literacy Initiatives in Latin America
A number of digital literacy-related initiatives have been rolled out by both national governments and international organizations in several Latin American countries over the last few years. The UN has recently begun a program encouraging computer literacy and empowerment among rural Latin American women. Brazil has also launched an ambitious program designed to provide low-cost Internet service to 70% of the nation's population by the end of 2014. Panama's government has also had a program to provide free Internet access to the poor in place for several years, and Chile, Uruguay and Argentina each have their own version of a "notebook for every child" programs that have given away over two million laptop computers.