Can digital be the great global leveler?

Deep-rooted digital divides within and between countries are currently increasing inequalities, with huge disparities in access to technology, infrastructure, and digital literacy. How can the proposed Global Digital Compact create a more inclusive and equitable digital landscape?

Data and monitoringGlobal

Members of the Nepalese NGO Women Group Coordination Committee (WGCC) receiving training on the GeoKrishi app. The app provides agricultural content and small-business advice for women farmers. ©DAI/Narendra Shrestha

As noted in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, “[t]he spread of information and communications technology and global interconnectedness has great potential to accelerate human progress, to bridge the digital divide and to develop knowledge societies.” 

However, the digital divide, one of the stark manifestations of the current asymmetries internationally and at the national level, deprives many developing countries of the potential benefits of such technology. About 2.7 billion people are still digitally unconnected. The problem is that “[a]s technology develops faster, it also becomes essential for more aspects of daily life, including school and healthcare. As a result, the digital divide is worsening as those with technology get ahead faster, and those without technology are left behind.” The cost of internet connection in developing countries, which is often higher than in developed countries, creates an additional obstacle. The digital divide has clear gender and income dimensions, as it disproportionally affects women, people with lower income, and marginalized communities.

The digital divide has tangible socio-economic impacts, notably in terms of access to education and health, and in determining the productive profile of a country and the competitiveness of different sectors. Some of these impacts are briefly mentioned below based on findings in South Centre’s research and publications.

Education

Digital tools have a great potential to improve education in developing countries but, as is the case in other areas, their impact will be limited by the major asymmetries in access to infrastructure and digital tools. As  noted by Kishore Singh,  in Harnessing Digital Technologies for Education in Developing Countries: Need for a Judicious Approach: “The costs of digital devices and tools and services such as computers, tablets, and smartphones, and broadband services, required for access to digitally supported education, are exorbitant for nearly one-third of the world population, victims of poverty. In a large number of developing countries, especially in the least developed countries, those who are marginalized cannot afford to buy these digital devices. Impediments in access to them must also be seen in terms of the rural–urban divide as people in remote areas are disadvantaged or cut off.” 

However, digital technologies under all circumstances “must be treated as only supportive means and complementary tools and should not be allowed to supplant the education system. The usages of digital technologies in education must be allowed so long as the virtual does not become vicious. Public policies should ensure that digital devices as tools remain subservient to the humanistic mission of education.”

Digital health

Digital health is a tool that can “ameliorate efficiency and effectiveness of healthcare systems. Growing penetration of the internet, vast coverage of mobile networks, better digital literacy of the young population, and exponential growth of projects targeting digital healthcare over the last two or so decades are an opportunity for the developing countries to adopt appropriate use of digital technologies for more efficacious health systems which are at par with the developed world” (see Digital Health Challenges in the South: Towards Better Integration of Digital Health Practices). 

However, there is still an absence of an institutionalized approach in developing countries to integrate digital health in mainstream healthcare systems: “[c]ountries of the South in general face fragmentation between relevant government entities like those working in information technology, planning, and healthcare that are usually found working in silos.” In addition, implementing digital health requires investment in infrastructure, acquiring adequate skills and ensuring the connectivity of potential users, especially in rural areas. This is often beyond the reach of many developing countries.

Agriculture

Most developing countries heavily depend on agriculture. Digital technologies can help to increase productivity, but their impact may differ significantly depending on the specific context where they apply. Thus (as noted in Unveiling the Controversies: ICTs in Agriculture and the Challenges for Africa), “[i]n West African countries where agriculture is the backbone of livelihoods, the adoption of ICTs [information and communication technologies] has profound implications for job security and social dynamics that may not be consistent with the effects observed in more economically diversified regions.” Moreover, there is “a growing concern that reliance on ICTs may lead to the erosion of indigenous farming knowledge and practices in Africa. This dependence could make farmers vulnerable to technological disruptions and reduce their self-sufficiency, undermining long-standing agricultural traditions. There is a danger of losing indigenous knowledge and cultural practices to the introduction of smart agriculture practices.”

No one-size-fits-all

These three examples show the complexity of dealing with the digital transformation. The dissemination of digital solutions appears, in principle, highly desirable but may require investments and skills that are not available in developing countries, while in other cases the disruptive effects of digital technologies need to be considered and appropriately managed. These facts and the extremely wide spectrum of application of such technologies make it particularly difficult to develop an international framework and governance equally suitable to all countries.

This is one of the challenges that the international community will face in adopting the proposed Global Digital Compact (GDC) in the context of the Summit of the Future. This challenge is compounded by the great fragmentation currently existing in the governance of the digital space. The proposals made in the UN Secretary-General’s Policy Brief presented some “gaps and shortcomings from the perspective of developing countries’ interests in this area. For example, although the very idea of regulation is acknowledged in the policy brief, it does not envisage a broader role for the UN and multilateral processes to regulate core areas of the digital governance, such as big tech platforms and [artificial intelligence] (AI) development and use” (see The Global Digital Compact: opportunities and challenges for developing countries in a fragmented digital space). It will also be essential that the GDC be conceived as a states-led mechanism (rather than a multistakeholder one that could lead to tech corporations participating in decision-making on the same footing as states.)


It will be essential that the GDC contributes to building a multilateral system that “delivers for everyone, everywhere” with concrete actions toward ensuring a better future for “all of humanity” along the three pillars of the UN system: development, peace and security, and human rights, as already mentioned in the zero draft under negotiation

However, some key elements are missing in the draft, such as:

  • how to deal with the concentration of power by dominant digital companies
  • corporate accountability
  • decolonization of the data economy
  • AI governance
  • improvement of digital infrastructure in and transfer of technology to developing countries

Only if these and other development-related issues (such as finance) are properly addressed will the GDC contribute to a digital transformation that really benefits all.

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