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Connecting everyone to the internet won’t solve the world’s development problems

Downloading tunes in Lagos. Not all internet access is equal. Akintunde Akinleye/Reuters

By 9.30am today I will have skyped Malawi, emailed Ghana, Facebooked Nepal, paid a bill online and used the satnav on my mobile phone. It feels a long time since we first got colour TV at home and, years later, when I accessed the internet using a dial-up modem. When I recalled these moments to my son he yawned. Aged, 19, he doesn’t remember a time before ubiquitous connectivity.

According to a new report from the World Bank, more than 40% of the global population now has internet access. On average, eight in ten people in the developing world own a mobile phone. Even in the poorest 20% of households this number is nearly seven in ten, making cellphones more prevalent than toilets or clean water.

Digital technologies are spreading rapidly in developing countries. Digital Dividends Report

There is no doubt that the world is experiencing a revolution of information and communication technology, bringing about rapid change on a massive scale. But despite great expectations for the power of digital technologies to transform lives around the world it has fallen short and is unevenly distributed, with the most advantages going, as ever, to the wealthy. The World Bank argues that increasing connectivity alone is not going to solve this problem.

Digital dividends

Around the world, digital investments bring growth, jobs and services. They help businesses become more productive, people to find better life opportunities and governments to deliver stronger public services. At their best, the report finds that inclusive, effective digital technologies provide choice, convenience, access and opportunity to millions, including the poor and disadvantaged.

For example, in the Indian state of Kerala the community action project Kudumbashree outsources information technology services to cooperatives of women from poor families – 90% of whom had not previously worked outside the home. The project, which supports micro-credit, entrepreneurship and empowerment, now covers more than half the households in the state.

The World Bank also emphasises that the poorest individuals can benefit from digital technologies even without mobile phones and computers. Digital Green, an NGO working with partners in India, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Ghana, Niger and Tanzania, trains farmers using community-produced and screened videos.

Many governments are using the most of positive digital dividends to empower their citizens. In countries with historically poor birth registration, for example, a digital ID can provide millions of people with their first official identity. This increases their access to a host of public and private services, such as voting, medical care and bank accounts, enabling them to exercise their basic democratic and human rights.

Digital divides

For every person connected to high-speed broadband, five are not. Worldwide, around four billion people do not have any internet access, nearly two billion do not use a mobile phone, and almost half a billion live outside areas with any mobile signal. Divides persist across gender, geography, age and income.

Across Africa the digital divide within demographic groups remains considerable. Digital Dividends Report

Those who are not connected are clearly being left behind. Yet many of the benefits of being online are also offset by new risks.

The poor record of many e-government initiatives points to high failure of technology and communications projects. Where processes are already inefficient, putting them online amplifies those inefficiencies. In Uganda, according to the World Bank, electronic tax return forms were more complicated than manual ones, and both had to be filed. As a result, the time needed to prepare and pay taxes actually increased. The report cites the risk that states and corporations could use digital technologies to control citizens, not to empower them.

The general disruption of technology in the workforce is complex and yet to be fully understood, but it seems to be contributing to a “hollowing out” of labour markets.

The labour market is becoming more polarised in many countries. Digital Dividends Report

Technology augments higher skills while replacing routine jobs, forcing more workers to compete for low-skilled work. This trend is happening around the world, in countries of all incomes, demonstrated by rising shares in high and low-skilled occupations as middle-skilled employment drops. The World Bank notes that:

The digital revolution can give rise to new business models that would benefit consumers, but not when incumbents control market entry. Technology can make workers more productive, but not when they lack the know-how to use it. Digital technologies can help monitor teacher attendance and improve learning outcomes, but not when the education system lacks accountability

Not surprisingly, the better educated, well connected, and more capable have received most of the benefits —- circumscribing the gains from the digital revolution.

A tremendous challenge

The report emphasises that investment in connectivity itself is not enough. In order to achieve the full development benefits of digital investment, it is essential to protect internet users from cybercrime, privacy violations and online censorship, and to provide a full set of “analogue complements” alongside. These include:

  • Regulations, to support innovation and competition
  • Improved skills, to enable access to digital opportunities
  • Accountable institutions, to respond to citizens’ needs and demands

Ultimately, while the World Bank continues to champion connectivity for all as a crucial goal, it also recognises the tremendous challenge in achieving the essential conditions needed for technology to be effective.

In my privileged home, digital technology brings me choice and convenience. It will be a long time before the digital revolution brings similar returns for everyone, everywhere.

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