The Digital Divide in Southeast Asia Meets COVID-19

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SEATTLE, Washington — The novel coronavirus disrupted the realities of the present in many unprecedented ways. Considered less is how the virus exacerbated many of the trends forming today’s globalized society. One such trend is the digital divide. The digital divide in Southeast Asia, one of the many regions facing this technological-imbalance, will determine the strength and wellbeing of the international labor force in a world after COVID-19.

The “Digital Divide”

The term “digital divide” refers to the significant differences in the level of digital competency and the extent of digital infrastructure between developed and developing countries. Approximately 87% of people in developed countries have Internet access while only 47% of people have it in developing countries. The divide also spans gender, social and accessibility fields. It disproportionately affects certain subgroups like women, disabled and socially disconnected individuals. The wide variety of metrics makes the divide difficult to quantify as regional differences and Internet quality, like broadband speeds, can distort a country’s findings.

The consequences of the digital divide are far-reaching and multidimensional. Individuals lacking digital access have an educational disadvantage as well as facing social isolation and economic devastation. In developing countries, these effects compound with additional societal factors such as poverty, corruption or conflict. For many areas, the result is an unskilled labor force limited to basic manufacturing and subsistence agriculture. These are trends that make economic diversification impossible and trap the region in a cycle of poverty. Breaking this cycle can only be accomplished through digital investment and accompanying tech education. Therefore, it is encouraging that many foreign aid programs tend to favor digital initiatives.

The realities of the coronavirus pandemic laid bare the extent of the digital divide. As quarantines moved education and work online, countries with sufficient digital infrastructure can better adapt to the ever-changing crisis. For some industries, the transition to digital platforms is efficient enough to potentially warrant a permanent restructuring. Successes like these encouraged many in developing countries to prioritize digital investment with the hope of a quicker economic recovery.

Southeast Asian Region

The Southeast Asian Region is made up of 643 million people, thousands of ethnic groups and 12 countries. The region of Southeast Asia plays an important role on the global stage. Southeast Asia has a young average population age and regional integration through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Governance in Southeast Asia is wildly different country-to-country from Communist Vietnam and Laos to the military junta of Myanmar or the vibrant democracy of Malaysia. While these governmental differences reflect the digital divide in Southeast Asia, they do not address recent regional cooperation in bridging the gap.

Internet penetration varies widely from country to country. Developed Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei have internet accessibility rates of more than 80%. Indonesia and Thailand less than 60% along with impoverished Myanmar and Vietnam. What does not vary is the omnipresent urban and rural divide. Even in developing countries, many urban universities successfully transitioned online while isolated, rural schools and businesses fell by the wayside.

Southeast Asian Policy Proposals

While the significance of the above trends cannot be understated, the most hopeful trend comes in the growing recognition of the digital divide in Southeast Asia due to COVID-19. Regional bodies and individual countries unilaterally acted in favor of digital innovation. ASEAN’s economic ministers arranged the accessibility of government resources and the diversion of funds to small and medium-sized businesses. Stimulus plans in countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines prioritized building digital infrastructure. Cambodia’s government is deploying resources to protect microentrepreneurs and transition business activities to the more readily available smartphones.

Organizations Assisting Southeast Asia

In policy areas lacking government intervention, NGOs stepped up to become leaders in bridging the digital divide in Southeast Asia. In an initiative supported by Australian nonprofits, ThailandLearning.org is delivering educational resources to socially disconnected schools and universities. ASEAN’s Go Digital initiative is training 200,000 people throughout the region in various digital competencies. More than half of those involved are women. STAR Kampuchea in Cambodia is supporting small businesses by connecting entrepreneurs with clients in rural areas. Most encouraging of all are the thousands of crowdfunding social media campaigns dedicated to sharing educational resources and digital devices to those who need it.

While COVID-19 deepened the digital divide internationally, it also brought digital education to the forefront of economic and educational policy. The temporary lack of global economic activity presents an opportunity for countries to allocate resources in order to bridge the divide. Pertinent trend lines in this area are encouraging, as more than 300 million people gained Internet access since 2018. Countries that follow the regional efforts inspired by the digital divide in Southeast Asia have the potential to emerge from COVID-19 with a digitally competent workforce. This new and improved tech society can better handle the challenges of a world post-COVID-19.

– Matthew Compan
Photo: Unsplash

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