The Digital Divide is growing. Here’s how to fix it.
Anir Chowdhury and Ashfaq Zaman argue that the digital divide is the perfect priority case for the United Nations.
In many parts of the world, we see the advent of AI, cloud computing and IoT forming what many are calling the ‘fourth industrial revolution”. We are seeing whole new industries being formed at often alarming rates, while governments across the globe are struggling to keep pace.
Yet the risk is that as digital industries continue to grow exponentially, the mix of digital ‘haves and have nots’ could grow ever wider.
Now is the time to make sure that we manage the fourth industrial revolution fairly and equitably. That’s why we need a global resolution on digital inclusivity.
Of course, COVID saw a huge spike of people going online for the first time. Across the globe, some 466 million people went online for the first time.
While this may be a cause for celebration, it obscures a deeper, more nuanced picture of an ever-expanding global digital divide. In reality, 2.7 billion people, representing a third of the world, do not have access to the internet, and 53% of the world does not have access to high-speed broadband.
Of course, this internet access breaks down dramatically when we factor in region. Internet penetration sits at its highest in Europe at 89% yet is still lagging at 40% in Africa.
This divide is not only broken down by region, but by gender. As of 2022, there are 264 million fewer women accessing the internet than men, with women 7% less likely to own a mobile phone and 16% less likely to use mobile internet than men.
Yet the challenges of delivering digital equity are context-specific. For example, speaking at the UNGA, Botswana’s Lorato Motsumi noted that “In 2022, only 36 per cent of LLDC populations had Internet access, in stark contrast to the global average of 66 per cent.” She also highlighted how the cost of internet access is far higher for landlocked countries, and locks them into an often unhealthy dependency on neighboring countries with access to underwater internet cables.
Similarly, Nepal’s speaker, speaking for the group of the Least Developed countries, mentioned that while developed countries are phasing out older-generation networks in order to support 5G, low-income countries have to work with 2G and 3G networks. This is primarily because of the barriers to 5G deployment, including high infrastructure costs, device affordability, unreliable electricity and regulatory and adoption constraints.
In regions such as Jamaica, a strengthened ICT infrastructure could help residents who died of incommunicable diseases, of whom women and girls make up the majority. Similarly, more spending on early advanced warning systems could also be instrumental for building climate resilience and saving lives.
As we can see, addressing the digital divide naturally dovetails with SDG 9 on infrastructure development, goal 4 on quality education, goal 5 on gender equality, and goal 10 reducing inequalities.
Currently, The UN’s current Sustainable Development Goals do indeed encompass digital access. Buried in SDG 9C, who’s overall goal is to “Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation,” we can see the target to “significantly increase access to ICT and strive to provide universal and affordable access to the internet in LDCs by 2020.”
Focussing on mere access is not enough. It is indeed only the front door to the online ecosystem. We now need to focus on quality and inclusive access. This is the type of access that allows the poor, people with disabilities and marginalized communities to build businesses, access healthcare information, file taxes, and receive early natural disaster and climate warnings.
This is why we need a global, cross-government approach to building inclusive innovations, infrastructure and resilience in the emerging world.
Some approaches have already shown some promise. For example, the African Union’s Digital Transformation Strategy has been a driving force for progress on the continent by focusing on policy goals based around foundational pillars to support the digital ecosystem.
Another example can be found in the Digital India Programme, which so far has been extremely successful in connecting its citizens to services through robust investment in infrastructure and broadband, with great spillover effects, including reducing poverty from 22% in 2012 to 16% in 2019.
In our own country of Bangladesh, where digital access is core to our Smart Bangladesh 2041 strategy, our “e-Quality Centre for inclusive innovation”, will seek to operate as a blueprint for building digital inclusivity in the emerging world. The e-Quality center will be used to tech transfer, fund technologies and support research that seek to solve problems of digital inequality.
From going from what Kissinger described as a ‘basket case’ some 50 years ago, Bangladesh’s frugal innovation and progressive digital policies mean that it is one of the most digitally connected developing countries in the world today. Some of Bangladesh’s existing technologies, DPI and initiatives have already been exported to Malawi, Haiti and Yemen.
Similarly, the private sector has already shown some promise in addressing the digital divide. For example, Elon Musk’s Starlink could be a feasible solution for driving access, even current 2022 data suggests that only 2% of Starlink users live outside of the west. Google’s Next Billion Users initiative similarly looks to build a more helpful and relevant to those who are new to the internet. However, private sector attempts to address the digital divide often focus on a narrow scope of the problem.
As we step forward into the new Industrial Revolution, now is the time to make sure that we pluck the fruits of the internet age, while distributing them equally. Managed correctly, the fourth industrial revolution could be one of the greatest drivers of social mobility we’ve ever witnessed. However if managed without caution, this industrial revolution could cement and exacerbate existing inequalities across lines of location, gender, income and climate exposure.
When speaking at the UN’s High Level Political Forum and at the 78th general assembly, we have called for a global resolution for #ZeroDigitalDivide. Such a resolution could fix the eyes of the international community on this problem, and on the solutions that Bangladesh, and many other nations, have proven can work.
Such a resolution could make sure that we build the level of international cooperation that we need. The resolution would require the international community to promote affordable, high-quality connectivity through investment in digital infrastructure and design digital public services that are inclusive. On top of this, we need to promote context-specific methods to enhance digital literacy, in order to empower communities to use the internet safely and reliably.
Finally, the global community must ensure that we create an environment that fosters digital innovation and entrepreneurship in order to allow lower-income countries to drive economic and social progress.
Most importantly, this cannot be done across geo-political lines. We need a unified, multilateral approach to tackling the digital literacy gap. The UN exists to promote cooperation, maintain global peace and security, and enhance the well-being of the global population. That’s exactly why the issue of the digital divide is the perfect priority case.
The global rally cry for a digitally fair and prosperous world has been made. It is now up to all of us to answer that call.
Anir Chowdhury is the Policy Advisor of the a2i Program of the ICT Division and the Cabinet Division of the Government of Bangladesh supported by the UNDP.
Ashfaq Zaman is the communications adviser of the a2i Program of the ICT Division of the government of Bangladesh.
Photo by Adrien Olichon