Tackling Digital Exclusion

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SEATTLE, Washington — It is predicted that in 2023, 3 billion people still will not have access to the internet, with many more underutilizing its benefits due to a lack of necessary skills. The Pathways for Prosperity Commission (PPC), launched in January 2018 and hosted and managed by Oxford University’s Blavatnik’s School of Government, is dedicating resources to tackling digital exclusion.

Among collaborations with developing county’s governments, private sector leaders, entrepreneurs and international development partners, the commission was founded in partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and is co-chaired by Melinda Gates herself. The other co-chairs include Sri Mulyani Indrawati, the Indonesian Minister of Finance, and Strive Masiyawa, the Founder and Executive Director of Econet Group.

The Commission’s Scope and Purpose

The commission’s broad goal, in relation to technology, is to develop a new kind of conversation surrounding access to technology. Importantly, the work focuses on how developing countries need to take control of their own technology in order to reap its benefits. One large obstacle to this goal has been digital exclusion.

Digital exclusion means more than simply not having access to technology like a computer or a smartphone, knowing how to use that technology to its fullest is also important. It is estimated that one in two people still only use their smartphones to make phone calls and do not take advantage of its many other uses. Part of the reason for this is a lack of digital literacy often found in people experiencing poverty. Digital exclusion mirrors already existing inequalities in countries all around the world.

Indeed, those with limited education and people living in poverty are the most likely to be digitally excluded. Succinctly put in an op-ed written for CNBC Africa by one of the commissions co-founders, Strive Masiyawa, “Technology is going to drive rapid and radical change across the continent over the coming five years and beyond, but its ultimate impact on the lives of citizens, especially the poorest and the excluded, will only be as good as the systems we put in place to manage it.” Tackling digital exclusion is one way to combat poverty in these countries.

Tackling Digital Exclusion

PPC’s commission identifies three large barriers to digital usage: lack of infrastructure, skill and cultural barriers. Without proper infrastructure, it can be difficult to get internet service to rural areas. Accessibility plays a large role in whether or not a person can take advantage of the benefits of technology. Skill barriers encompass challenges like illiteracy, not being able to speak English and not knowing how to navigate a smartphone.

In regards to cultural barriers, many women are often digitally excluded because of two main stereotypes. Women are thought not to need phones since they are usually expected to put the household needs above their personal technological needs. Furthermore, phones are sometimes perceived as leading women into engaging in promiscuity. In developing countries, these types of entrenched gender norms and barriers mean that women are almost 40 percent less likely than men to use the Internet.

Furthermore, the cost can play a vital role in digital exclusion. In terms of the cost, charges can vary dramatically. For example, the average cost of a 500MB (a relatively small amount) internet package in Tanzania could cost the average person living in poverty as much as two months worth of their wages; whereas, in Guinea-Bissau, it costs $81.

In order to address these barriers, the commission advocates a four-pronged strategy. First, excluded groups like women and those in poverty need to be connected to digital access through improved infrastructure. Second, barriers that hinder people’s everyday life need to be eradicated. Third, a vibrant digital ecosystem needs to be created. Finally, citizens need to be empowered to demand transparent and trustworthy digital services.

Assessing the Commission’s Progress One-Year Out

The commission’s first year has been largely exploratory, using inter-disciplinary tools to fully understand the issue and craft an approach. In an article written for CNN, Melinda Gates speaks of two of the commission’s recent reports as sources of optimism. The most important finding was that tech innovation is not only creating opportunities for impoverished people to become prosperous but also for poorer countries to grow their economies in new ways.

What needs to be done on this front is to truly ensure that entrepreneurs and policymakers understand this finding so that they can seize these advantages so their countries can benefit. Conventionally, development has been thought of in terms of either manufacturing or natural resources. This finding has opened new pathways for development that uses technology as a tool to create a more prosperous and equal world. The key to embarking down these new development pathways is tackling digital exclusion.

– Georgie Giannopoulos

Photo: Flickr

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