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Tackling digital inequalities needs a people centred approach – Here’s how

This piece was written by A4AI’s Deputy Director & Policy Lead Eleanor Sarpong. Follow her on Twitter @Ellasarpong.

Throughout the Covid-19 crisis, we have seen the impact of deep inequalities within and between countries. While some countries are rolling out vaccines and preparing to open up their economies, others are facing a devastating resurgence of Covid-19 with no vaccines to distribute. Similarly, while meaningful connectivity has allowed many of us to enjoy the internet’s most powerful features, almost half the world has been without this lifeline. Today, with more essential services online, people need meaningful connectivity to access vaccines, healthcare, education and commerce. That is why the UN’s first-ever High-Level Thematic Debate on Connectivity and Digital Cooperation event, held on 27th April 2021 by H.E. Mr. Volkan Bozkir, President of the UN General Assembly, was so timely. A4AI was privileged to speak at this event, and we published a joint statement calling for a people-centred approach to address digital inequalities and achieve meaningful connectivity. As the world rebuilds from the Covid-19 crisis, we must pursue actions that ensure everyone who has been excluded or struggles to afford access can connect and take full advantage of what the internet has to offer. Here are four key actions we must take: 

Invest in quality digital access   

First, we must acknowledge the magnitude of the stark digital inequalities we face and tackle them in phases, starting with short term actions, then progressing to medium and long term ones. Our research with the ITU estimates that $428 billion is required to build key broadband infrastructure needed to get everyone online in the next nine years. That commitment to infrastructure must be complemented urgently with increased investment in innovative devices and new technologies that enable everyone to have the same level of quality connectivity, whether they are farmers in rural Ghana or working in garment factories in Bangladesh. Governments have a critical role to play by setting clear broadband plans, with precise time-bound targets that focus on bringing affordable broadband and meaningful connectivity to everyone. The Broadband Commission targets are a good reference point to get countries on track by 2025 and a good gauge of how soon they can aim  to achieve the goals of 2030

Prioritise rural communities  

We must also address the stark digital inequalities between rural and urban areas within countries. National policies must actively target broadband connectivity and digital skills to rural areas. One important resource available is the Rural Broadband Policy Framework which provides guidance on tackling this issue. A4AI developed this framework together with our members and partners, including the Association for Progressive Communications, Digital Empowerment Foundation, CIPESA, and Facebook.

Improve women’s participation online 

To tackle digital inequalities, we must address the gender digital divide i.e. the gaps that exist in internet access and use between men and women. Research shows women are still less likely to access and use the internet compared to men. The latest ITU data shows that in Asia, the digital gender gap in internet use is 17%, rising to a staggering 85% in Africa. Even in Europe and North America, women are 5% points behind men in internet usage. At the national level, governments must establish  holistic policies that set targets for digital access and skills for women and measure them. A4AI is prioritising the need to map and measure women’s online participation and has partnered with the Internet Society (ISOC) to address this by researching the cost of excluding women from the digital economy. We anticipate this research will help to amplify the need to ensure a more gender inclusive internet. In addition to facilitating access, we must fast track the protection of women’s activities online, tackling online harms and gender based violence with supportive policies and regulations in partnership with the private sector, civil society, and government.

Prioritise national policy and local action 

While global agenda setting and policies are important, change often happens at the national levels. That’s why we need to prioritise national policy and local actions. To promote a people-centred approach with effective cooperation across sectors, governments must collaborate with the private sector and civil society to map the digital gaps that exist, measure them, and track progress at various levels. We also need to ensure a ‘whole of government approach’ where ICT ministers actively reach out and partner other sectors such as education, agriculture, and finance ministries in setting access and usage targets . A4AI is currently working with governments through national coalitions in Ghana, Nigeria, Dominican Republic, Bangladesh, and Mozambique to shape and implement their broadband policies and plans. Through these direct country engagements, we have convened policymakers, the private sector, and civil society into working groups to move towards actual policy implementation. By taking a people-centred approach one policy change at a time, we can bring more people online and bridge the digital divide.