Bridging the Digital Divide

By Frank-Jürgen Richter

September 24, 2020

Today, owning a smartphone and having access to uninterrupted internet is a necessity. According to a recent report, of the global population of 7.75 billion in 2020, around 67% own a smartphone and more than half of them have access to the internet.

However, there’s still work to be done with respect to improving connectivity. The availability of an internet connection does not necessarily mean accessibility. Some societies still cannot access the internet due to costs and some due to the quality of the connection.

Horasis will deliberate on the theme of digital divides in its upcoming ‘Horasis Extraordinary Meeting’ – a virtual event scheduled to be held on 1 October 2020. The event will host a series of parallel virtual sessions bringing together leaders from different walks of life in hopes of addressing key problems and achieving a more unified world.

The COVID Push

The need for digitalization has increased remarkably after the onset of COVID-19. The pandemic has rendered large parts of the world indoors and growingly dependent on technology to attend to their basic needs. Governments are pushing for digitalizing the entire governance system, encouraging public officials and citizens to actively use technology wherever and whenever possible – also in lieu of social distancing rules.

Businesses that can operate remotely, are exploring new digital ways to onboard flexible working rules for their employees – freeing them from being physically present in office every day. The presence of a robust internet connection has also helped in assuring that stranded individuals in different parts of the world remain connected virtually with their near and dear ones, and with their colleagues at work.

Individuals, too, have been forced to respond. The uptake of digital tools has increased rapidly, with e-commerce and cashless payments seeing a tremendous spike. While the pandemic did force a change in behavior, this change is likely to outlast the crisis. The common thread across businesses, governments, and society has been the necessity to adapt to crises. And together the human race has once again adapted to restart economies and livelihoods, and return to some normalcy.

Is Internet the Only Barrier to Overcome?

Internet can be considered as the bridge that has enabled the digital divide to close among societies. But there are other factors governing the scope of digitalization in order to achieve an inclusive digital world. Though owning a smartphone has become cheaper, using it effectively is still a concern. Many still lack the technical knowhow in using these machines effectively. Governments need to spend on policies that encourage the need for technical development among individuals. This would create a win-win situation, wherein the economy will have a robust technical workforce skilled in the new way of work while opening up new opportunities for the people to earn better livelihoods.

Schools are still closed in most countries, and while edutech has enabled students to continue learning – it is still only a shade of the holistic experience one receives at a proper school. It has also opened a ‘can of worms’ in terms of marginalized sections of the society who can’t afford such education. Many have lost their jobs in the wake of COVID-19 and for them it has been a hard choice of either giving a good education to their children or putting food on the table. Both are needed in the current scenario and a problem such as this will need the partnership of governments and private sector players to ensure that the fruits of digitalization is more accessible and distributed in an equitable way.

The UN’s Plan

UN has been actively addressing these gaps with a vision to enable an inclusive digital economy and society by 2030.

They recommend to achieve this in three ways;

  1. Through the revival of the Internet Governance Forum Plus that will help in the development of infrastructure and procedures and more participation and acceptance by stakeholder communities. To achieve this the UN has formed a trust fund encouraging governments, multilaterals, and businesses to contribute generously.
  2. The UN has also proposed the creation of a distributed co-governance architecture which will govern the design, implementation, and enforcement of internet norms by relevant authorities.
  3. And finally, the development of a ‘Digital Commons Architecture’ aiming to synergize the efforts of governments, civil societies, and businesses to achieve sustainable development goals (SDGs) through digitalization.

Will it be Enough?

Digital divide is a problem that is rooted in socio-economic inequalities which will need to be addressed through a multidimensional approach, rather than only a technical and infrastructure approach. Digital gaps do exist and this needs to be acknowledged by world leaders and businesses to bring about a lasting change. Concerned stakeholders should collaborate to create digital opportunities for societies to tap into the next level of growth.

It is critical to find common ground to achieve this goal of a more liberalized and developed world – where all have equal access to digital technologies, thus fostering inclusive growth.

Photo Caption: Laughing children at a village in Uganda. Many societies around the world still cannot access the internet due to costs and some due to the quality of the connection. Photo by Roman Nguyen on Unsplash.