Digital Divide(nds)

  • Laura Monti
  • Digital dividends
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I was typing away, trying to finish a report when the electricity went out. I forgot to save before the screen went blank. All of my work, gone. Rolling blackouts are a routine occurrence across Malawi. But this particular blackout was not caused by ESCOM, the state-owned power company, not meeting demand. This time, it was because my organization couldn’t pay its utility bill. With such unreliable electricity, Internet access is restricted to the lucky few who can afford mobile Internet data or the occasional trip to a pricey Internet cafe.

According to an ITU report (pg 167), Malawians pay the highest mobile phone expenses in the world, relative to their income. On average, Malawians pay more than $USD 12 a month, or about 56 percent of their average monthly earnings, toward mobile phone service.

The majority of Malawians are still excluded from the benefits of the digital revolution.

Technology can be transformational.

Malawians’ exclusion from the benefits of the digital revolution as an example, was at heart of this year’s World Bank’s World Development Report 2016 on Digital Dividends. The report concluded that the digital dividends – the broader development benefits from using digital technologies – have lagged behind.

Digital technologies are making people, businesses and governments more connected. Every day about 203 billion emails are sent, 8.8 billion Youtube videos watched, 4.2 billion Google searches searched, 803 million tweets shared, and 152 million Skype calls made.

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) and other online teaching tools like the Centre’s eCampus, the Khan Academy and Rio de Janeiro’s Educopedia are increasing the access to and the quality of education.

However, their aggregated impact has fallen short. The digital divide persists across gender, geography, age and income within each country and between countries. About 60 percent of the world’s people, including the majority of Malawians, are offline and do not participate in the digital economy.Women, rural, youth, the elderly, traditionally marginalized groups, and people living in poverty are less likely to benefit from the growth, jobs and better services generated by the Internet, mobile phones, and related technologies.In advanced and emerging economies, digital technologies are changing the world of work, polarizing labour markets and increasing inequality. Labour shares of national income are falling. At the same time, the Internet is making workers more productive but the benefits are largest for the higher-skilled, thus concentrating wealth and reducing the overall quality of work for others.  For many who live in poverty, the biggest gains of digital technologies come from the lower information and search costs, normally through their mobile phones.

According to the World Bank, the economics of the Internet favour the formation of digital monopolies dominating our digital lives and economy. This concentration of market power diminishes the overall economic benefits and digital dividends from the Internet.Equally as concerning, about 1 in 3 Internet users does not have free Internet while it has the potential to empower citizens. Governments are increasingly seeking to control the Internet, limiting netizens rights of free expression and association.To realize the potential of technological advancements and closing the remaining digital divide, countries need to strengthen their “analog components” – regulations, skills and institutions.These analog components involve not just the expansion of connectivity but also promoting literacy skills, adoption of ICTs, enhancing social protection, adapting workers’ skills, foster competition among businesses, and making institutions more accountable.

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Kai-Hsin Hung | @KaiHsinHung