The opportunities of digital inclusion and the technology behind it

The opportunities of digital inclusion and the technology behind it

Image: United Nations ESCAP

Globally, 2.9 billion people lack internet access or the opportunity to engage in the digital economy. Despite technological advances, the digital divide continues to impact all aspects of life, from banking and healthcare to education, communications and media.

Two years ago, on September 21, 2022, in the General Assembly Declaration commemorating the 75th anniversary of the United Nations, Heads of State and Government recognized the importance of technology as a fundamental global issue. The world is committed to improving digital collaboration and maximizing digital technologies.

But digital inclusion is more than just bridging gaps. It is an opportunity to build a just and just society and a prosperous economy.

The World Economic Forum reported in May 2022 that with 95% of the world’s population living within mobile broadband reach, the digital divide is less about connectivity and more about a combination of a lack of digital know-how and limited devices. Even those with the internet are struggling to get quality services at affordable prices. Only 53% of the world’s population has access to high-speed broadband.

While the digital divide in rural areas is larger and disproportionate for certain groups, for example affecting more women than men, it continues to affect both developed and underdeveloped countries. About half of the US population does not have access to broadband speeds due to lack of coverage or skills, says Harvard Business School.

TechRepublic spoke to Jonathan Wong, Head of Technology and Innovation at the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) and Anna Osbourne, Head of Marketing and Communications at the Good Things Foundation in the UK to explore the challenges of to understand digital inclusion and the driving possibilities of technology.

Osbourne explained that from saving money to improving job prospects to being able to work flexibly, “society, organizations and individuals reap numerous benefits from digital inclusion”.

“On a societal level, organizations and governments can benefit from channel shifts, the ability to provide more efficient services and a skilled workforce,” Osbourne added.

When people are excluded from easy access to information, learning and essential services, billions are lost.

Technology and tech projects to promote digital inclusion

In Asia and the Pacific, UN ESCAP warns that despite the significant opportunities, women in the region are constrained by various factors. Women are affected by the gender gap in cell phone ownership, receive lower wages, have lower levels of education and lower levels of financial literacy, Wong told TechRepublic.

Wong acknowledges that the pandemic has accelerated the digital economy and society at an unimaginable pace, but assures that the digital transformation has not been without its challenges. “In the Asia-Pacific region alone, more than two billion people have no access to the digital world,” reveals Wong.

“Digital technologies have helped governments implement social protection systems at speed and scale, and enabled e-health and online education; while digital finance and e-commerce have helped businesses keep operating and trading,” explained Wong.

ESCAP – in partnership with the Griffith Asia Institute – recently published the Policy Guidebook: Harnessing Digital Technology for Financial Inclusion in Asia and the Pacific. The guide provides a framework for policymakers to develop policies and a regulatory environment that enables the poor and women to benefit from digital financial products and services.

Projects bringing together governments, organisations, the private sector and the public are proving to be new ways to solve the digital inclusion crisis. In the UK, where 10 million people still lack the most basic digital skills, 1.5 million lack internet access and 2 million struggle to afford it, the Good Things Foundation has launched a new social infrastructure to help the combat digital exclusion.

“The barriers to people’s digital inclusion are complex, but they can be broadly categorized into four areas: skills, motivation, confidence and access,” Osborne said.

The foundation works with national, regional and local organizations and communities to support those affected by the lack of digital inclusion policies. Last year they teamed up with Virgin Media O2 to fight ‘data poverty’ in the UK via the National Databank. Virgin Media O2 pledged free mobile data to help reverse the country’s digital inclusion crisis. Virgin Media O2 announced in July 2022 that it would add an additional 15 million GB of free data to the program to help people stay connected as the UK’s cost of living crisis escalates

Osbourne explained that the National Databank is a “national food bank for connectivity data” serving hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people in communities across the country. This initiative has already distributed around 500,000 free SIM cards and mobile data donated by Virgin Media, O2, Vodafone and Three.

The Good Things Foundation is also establishing the National Device Bank to support people who can’t get online because they can’t afford their own device. This initiative aims to fill the gaps in technology device ownership through donations of technology devices.

In the Asia Pacific region, ECAP continues to work to ensure inclusion is at the heart of the digital transformation the world has embraced since the pandemic began. And just like in the UK, the private sector is key to creating opportunity.

SEE: The COVID-19 gender gap: why women are quitting their jobs and how to get them back into the workplace (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

“In the Asia-Pacific region, the private sector plays a key role in the development of digital technologies. Ensuring that companies developing such technologies are “inclusive” is a key policy agenda for governments striving for digital inclusion, arguably more than any specific technology itself,” Wong said.

Technology companies can develop new markets at the grassroots of the economy by developing accessible and affordable technology products and services that follow these inclusive guidelines.

ESCAP and the UN Capital Development Fund (UNCDF) also initiated the Women Fintech MSME Innovation Fund to support FinTechs, financial service providers and innovators to develop, test and scale solutions that help women entrepreneurs succeed.

“Through this fund, we have partnered with SHE Investments to launch the KOTRA Riel accounting app, the first tool developed to help Cambodian micro-entrepreneurs plan, manage cash flows and access formal financial services support,” Wong added.

One of the biggest barriers women entrepreneurs face in growing and scaling their business is access to finance. Limited collateral, lack of financial history and low digital literacy are the main challenges for women micro-entrepreneurs when accessing bank finance.

“KOTRA-Riel works to address these challenges by creating a simple, user-friendly experience that allows non-technical people to track business income and expenses at the touch of a button,” added Wong.

In addition, the Ministers of Economy of ASEAN member states recently – through a partnership between the ASEAN Secretariat and ESCAP – adopted the Guidelines on Promoting Inclusive Enterprises in ASEAN, becoming the first region in the world to adopt such a set of guidelines.

“Ensuring that the digital transformation happening all around us doesn’t become another facet of deep inequality is probably one of the biggest challenges we face as countries start to rebuild,” Wong said.

In the UK, Osborne said that the barriers to digital inclusion are unlikely to be overcome by technology solutions, but rather by support that improves skills, reduces costs and removes barriers to entry. This, Osborne said, must be done in collaboration with industry, government, the third sector and communities.

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