Can We Turn the Digital Revolution into a Development Revolution?

  • Laura Monti
  • Digital dividends, Policies
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Today, 3.9 billion people – more than half of the world’s population – do not have access to Internet. This is unacceptable. It deepens existing social and economic divides while creating new ones. The digital revolution must be a development revolution for all.

To translate today’s technological breakthroughs into development breakthroughs, we need to harness the power of information and communication technologies (ICTs) to level the inequalities: between developed and developing countries, between men and women and between those with and without access to quality education.

If we do not invest directly to tackle digital divides – we run the risk of widening them.


Better Education

This year, Mobile Learning Week addresses the theme of Education in Emergencies and Crises, and is co-organized by UNESCO and UNHCR from 20 to 24 March at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris.

One out of every 113 people on Earth has been displaced due to conflict or persecution, more than half of them children. A mobile device tends to be one of the few possessions taken by people forced to leave their homes, and in many instances displaced people have access to a smartphone. Mobile phones are a portal to a wide range of tools and services, often providing a lifeline for people who have been displaced or are in an emergency situation.

Mobile technology also can open doors to education and empowerment. E-learning and mobile learning are radically transforming traditional methods of teaching, and have the ability to help break down economic barriers, divides between rural and urban, as well as the gender divide. E-learning is a cornerstone for building inclusive knowledge societies, and can transform students’ potential into practical skills. Mobile learning will be essential to advance progress towards the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) of universal education (SDG 4).

However, to advance towards universal education and the goal of gender equality (SDG 5), we will need to close the global digital divide and ensure universal and affordable access to the transformative technologies of Internet and broadband.


Closing the Digital Gender Divide

It is clear that women and girls have unequal access to digital technologies. ITU data shows that currently there is a 12% gender gap in online access globally. Internet penetration rates remain higher for men than women in all regions of the world, with the estimated gap between men and women being particularly substantial in the Least Developed Countries at 31%.

The Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development’s Working Group on the Digital Gender Divide, co-chaired by the GSMA and UNESCO, released a new report last week, Recommendations for action: bridging the gender gap in Internet and broadband access and use, which sets specific recommendations to address the barriers women face in access and use of the Internet. These actions build off of ITU’s and UN Women’s Action Plan to Close the Digital Gender Gap.

To advance women’s use and access of the Internet, we recommend action in four areas:

  • Compile detailed evidence: collect, analyze and track gender-disaggregated data to inform policy, particularly at a national and sub-national level, through a greater understanding of the issue.
  • Integrate policies: integrate gender equality targets and key performance indicators into strategies, policies, plans and budgets, involving women and relevant local communities from the onset.
  • Address the barriers women face: confront barriers that impede gender equality online, including affordable access; issues around safety; digital literacy and confidence; and the availability of relevant content, applications and services.
  • Support multi-stakeholder cooperation. Partnerships are indeed essential to this exercise and require collaboration between governments, international organizations, the private sector, civil society and educators.

Access is essential, but in itself it is not enough to close the gender gap. To do so, we will need to bolster the skills, incentives and resources for women and girls to join the technological revolution.

It is my hope that this report provides the necessary recommendations to spur concrete actions to bridge the gender gap in broadband use and access – with the ultimate goal of universal access and extending the benefits of ICTs for all.


The above blog was written by Irina Bokova, the co-Vice-Chair of the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development and head of the UNESCO , the UN’s educational, scientific and cultural organization in Paris. She shares her reflections on the importance of tackling the global digital divide. The original article as posted on the ITU Blog on March 20, 2017.


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