Digital inclusion unlocks a more resilient recovery for all

Vice President for Infrastructure at the World Bank

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit developing countries the hardest and recovery is continuing to accentuate this growing divide.  As advanced economies are expected to bounce back by 2023, developing economies could lag for years. Digital usage during the pandemic reflected a similar divide with a surge to 5 billion users worldwide, while 3 billion still remain offline, 96 per cent of whom live in developing countries. We must urgently counteract this growing global inequality.  When populations have affordable access to the internet and the skills to use it, digital adoption opens endless possibilities for a more resilient recovery.

Digital technologies have helped bridge divides that were insurmountable with brick-and-mortar development solutions and reach vulnerable populations that are often excluded. During the pandemic countries that used digital identifications and databases for government payments reached 39 percent more beneficiaries than those who did not.  In Chile, the national ID-linked basic account, Cuenta Rut, helped two million vulnerable Chileans receive social assistance payments directly to their bank accounts while many offices were shuttered to stop the spread of the virus.

Digitalization of essential services also extended opportunities to the most vulnerable and kept communities healthy during lockdowns. In Cote d’Ivoire, the government provided via cell phone remote medical screening and infection geolocation information. And remote education kept students learning with school closures affecting more than 1.6 billion worldwide. Turkey, for example, expanded its e-learning platform to reach 18 million students and over 1 million teachers.

Digital inclusion opens endless opportunities, but the divides are still stark as the poor, rural populations and women fall behind. Even when vulnerable populations achieve connectivity, lack of digital literacy and affordability still can pose insurmountable challenges to use the technologies. There are still twice as many internet users in cities than in rural areas. In South Asia, women are 51 percent less likely to use mobile internet than men. And the poor still struggle to get connected everywhere. In Africa less than 10 percent of the poorest have internet access.

Digital technologies can supercharge inclusive growth but we must accelerate investment, so they reach their full potential.  Governments need to make connectivity affordable, reliable, and accessible by all.  Policies that attract investors and promote competition will go a long way to drive down costs, expand the needed infrastructure and make mobile devices and data usage more affordable. Operators need to share infrastructure to lower barriers to entry and promote use of underutilized government owned telecom infrastructure. Africa has about 40 percent of its fiber networks, over 400,000km, owned by government, and underutilized.  In the Latin America and Caribbean region, 60 percent of the unconnected cite the high cost of data as their main obstacle for internet use.

In addition, people must have the skills they need to use digital technologies. When affordable access and skills come together, it means more jobs and poverty reduction. In Nigeria and Tanzania, labor force participation increased by 3 and 8 percentage points, respectively, after three or more years of internet availability, while poverty rates fell by 7 percent. At the same time, far too few are effectively using these resources. While 83 percent of people in Africa live in areas with mobile internet services, only 27 percent are using them. Digital skills and affordability are essential to close this usage gap. 

The third step is to build trust. People need to know that their digital interactions are reliable, safe, and secure for them to be fully embraced. This task is even more challenging in the developing world where digital skills are not as deep. Over two thirds of connected households in Latin America are concerned about their privacy and security when using the internet. In the Philippines, fingerprints and text-message authentication are used to assure populations that their identities are securely linked to their social welfare benefits. Progress on the digital trust agenda requires a strong legal framework and institutions for data protection including data governance entities, data protection authorities and cybersecurity agencies.

The pandemic has fast-forwarded digital development and made it clear that the digital future is here, now.  But if we don’t take urgent, coordinated action, the widening gaps across affordable access, skills and trust can undermine the potential for an inclusive recovery.  Now is the time for the private and public sectors to redouble efforts to be sure that developing countries fully embrace the powerful solutions of digital transformation.

This piece was originally published in Spanish in El País

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