The opportunities of digital inclusion and the technology behind it

Image: United Nations ESCAP

There are 2.9 billion people worldwide who have no internet access and no opportunities to participate in the digital economy. Despite technological advances, the digital divide continues to affect all aspects of life, from banking to healthcare, education, communications and media.

Two years ago, on September 21, 2022, world leaders recognized the importance of technology as a fundamental global issue in the General Assembly statement commemorating the 75th anniversary of the United Nations. The world pledged to improve digital collaboration and maximize digital technologies.

But digital inclusion is more than just closing gaps. It is an opportunity to build a fair and just society and a thriving economy.

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

Although the digital divide is wider in rural areas and disproportionate for certain groups, for example more women than men, it still affects both developed and underdeveloped countries. About half of the US population doesn’t have access to broadband speed because of a lack of coverage or skills, Harvard Business School says.

TechRepublic spoke with 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 discuss the challenges of digital inclusion and the technology that offers opportunities.

Osbourne explained that from saving money to improving job prospects and the ability to work flexibly, “digital inclusion brings countless benefits to society, organizations and individuals.”

“At a societal level, organizations and government can benefit from channel shifting, the ability to deliver more efficient services and a skilled workforce,” Osbourne added.

If people don’t have easy access to information, learning and essential services, billions will be lost.

Technology and engineering projects that drive digital inclusion

In Asia-Pacific, UN’s ESCAP warns that, despite significant opportunities, women in the region are limited by several 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 digital economies and societies at an unimaginable pace, but assures that digital transformation has not been without challenges. “In the Asia-Pacific region alone, more than two billion people have no access to the digital world,” Wong revealed.

“Digital technologies have supported governments to implement social protection schemes at pace and scale, and enabled e-health and online education; while digital finance and e-commerce have supported businesses to continue operating and trading,” explains Wong.

ESCAP, in collaboration with the Griffith Asia Institute, recently released the Policy Guidebook: Harnessing Digital Technology for Financial Inclusion in Asia and the Pacific. The guide provides policymakers with a framework to develop policies and regulatory frameworks that enable the poor and women to benefit from digital financial products and services.

Projects, in which governments, organisations, the private sector and the public work together, are emerging as new avenues to solve the digital inclusion crisis. In the UK, where 10 million people still lack the most basic digital skills, 1.5 million have no internet access and 2 million struggle to afford it, Good Things Foundation has launched a new social infrastructure to address digital exclusion. to grab.

“The barriers for people to be digitally included are complex, but they broadly fall into four areas, skills, motivation, trust and access,” Osborne said.

The foundation works by partnering 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 tackle “data poverty” in the UK through the National Databank. Virgin Media O2 promised free mobile data to reverse the digital inclusion crisis in the country. Virgin Media O2 announced in July 2022 that they were expanding the program with an additional 15 million GB of free data to help people stay connected as the cost of living in the UK escalates

Osbourne explained that the National Database is a “national food bank for connectivity data,” helping 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.

Good Things Foundation also establishes the National Device Bank to support people who cannot get online because they cannot afford their own device. This initiative aims to close the gaps in the possession of technological devices through donations of technical devices.

In the Asia-Pacific region, ECAP continues to work to ensure that inclusion is at the heart of the digital transformation the world has embraced since the start of the pandemic. And as in the UK, the private sector is key to creating opportunities.

TO SEE: The COVID-19 Gender Gap: Why Women Quit Their Jobs and How to Get Back to Work (Free PDF) (TechRepublic)

“In Asia-Pacific, the private sector plays a key role in the development of digital technologies, and ensuring that companies developing such technologies are “inclusive” is a major policy agenda for governments pursuing digital inclusion, probably more than any specific technology. yourself,” Wong said.

Tech companies can tap into new markets that underpin the economy by creating accessible and affordable technology products and services that follow these inclusive policies.

ESCAP and the UN Capital Development Fund (UNCDF) also initiated the Women Fintech MSME Innovation Fund to support FinTechs, financial services firms and innovators in developing, testing and scaling solutions that help women entrepreneurs succeed.

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

One of the main barriers faced by female entrepreneurs in growing and scaling their businesses is access to finance. Limited collateral, lack of financial history and low digital literacy are the main challenges female microentrepreneurs face in obtaining financing from banks.

“KOTRA-Riel works to address these challenges by creating a simple, user-friendly experience that allows those who are not tech savvy to track business income and expenses at the click of a button,” Wong added.

In addition, the economy ministers of ASEAN member countries recently adopted – through a partnership between the ASEAN secretariat and ESCAP – the guidelines for promoting inclusive businesses in ASEAN, making it the first region in the world to adopt such a set. adopted 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 begin to rebuild,” Wong said.

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

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