Photo: UNDP/Kinley Wangmo

At the WebSummit last week, representatives from the development world, government, civil society, and private sector dove into the evolving challenges of the digital divide and explored opportunities for inclusive solutions both immediate and long-term. This article summarizes those discussions and outlines next steps for greater digital equality in the post COVID-19 era. 

Reducing inequality has always been at the heart of development work. But the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has crystallized the extent to which the digital divide – the gap between people who can easily access the internet and those who cannot – is becoming the new face of global inequality. Globally, 3.7 billion people either live in unserviced areas, or live in coverage areas but do not access the internet because of high costs and / or lack of digital skills. The vast majority of these live in least developed countries, the so-called LDCs, where only one in four people uses the internet

COVID-19 has exacerbated this gap between the connected and the unconnected, and accelerated the need for coordinated solutions. “As countries around the world began to respond to COVID by putting services online, not everyone had access. What we are seeing now is that the digital divide, which was obviously there before the pandemic, has become a major feature of inequality, said Robert Opp, Chief Digital Officer of the United Nations Development Programme.

“If you are unable to access the internet, all the benefits of online business transactions, financial services, government services, or education are inaccessible to you,” he continued. 


Photo: UNDP/Felicia-Adriana Vacarelu

A whole-of-society approach will be critical to the success of efforts to close the digital divide, the speakers agreed. That means an integrated solutions system that goes beyond supporting digital infrastructure like computers, phones, and internet access. “Tech platforms are one way we can scale the number of people reached,” said ‘Gbenga Sesan, Executive Director of the Paradigm Initiative, a civil society organization working to connect underserved young Africans with digital opportunities. In Nigeria, he noted, 1.8 million young people every year take the exam to enter secondary school – but there is only space for 800,000 to one million in physical schools. Digital platforms can be used to increase access to secondary learning.  

Technology must be viewed as a means to an end, rather than an end in and of itself, argued Anabela Pedroso, Portugal’s Secretary of State of Justice. And that goal must remain improving people’s lives. “In the end, the most important thing is for us to adopt a human-centric approach,” she explained. “That means thinking about how we as a people use technology for the common good.” She cited digital human-centered programs that Portugal developed in record time during the pandemic, including digital birth certificates and citizen card renewals by text message. Looking ahead, Pedroso said, “we need to talk more and better” in order to ensure that efforts to close the inequality gap are aligned with a people-centric approach. 


Photo: UNDP/Felicia-Adriana Vacarelu

A whole-of-society approach also means building strategic, cross-sectoral partnerships between various types of organizations and private sector companies. Ultimately, it is critical to remember that technology alone doesn’t instantly give people what they need to live prosperous, fulfilling lives, explained Anca Bogdana Rusu, Head of Strategy for cLabs, a company which works to enable smartphone users all over the world to benefit from cryptocurrency. “There are no silver bullets,” she emphasized. 

Rather, collaboration and communication are key to reducing digital inequality. In particular, that means “having those conversations and mutual knowledge exchange from the tech world to the regulators and vice versa,” said Rusu. “I’ve been on both sides of the aisle [having previously worked for international organizations], and I find myself translating all the time between the public sector and the technology world.”

Strategic partnerships to narrow the digital gap are a critical component of UNDP’s work. In 2020 alone, UNDP and partners supported some 100 countries in building development programs specifically to address digital inequality. UNDP is developing tools, like the Digital Readiness Assessment, to help governments in their digital transformation. UNDP also launched a partnership with the International Telecommunication Union to create a Joint Facility on Digital Capacity-Building to boost digital literacy and skills training. And finally, UNDP’s sister agency, the United Nations Capital Development Fund, recently launched the Inclusive Digital Economy Scorecard, a policy tool that aids governments to set strategic priorities in their digital economy transformations.

Working toward cross-sector partnership opportunities like these means that organizations and companies must take stock of the values and principles they want to uphold for future generations. Once we’ve identified those shared values and principles, Robert Opp said, fostering regulatory environments will be much easier. “For me,” he concluded, echoing the sentiment of all speakers, “value number one is putting people at the center.” 


Photo: UNDP/Felicia-Adriana Vacarelu