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We must cooperate to secure affordable and meaningful connectivity for everyone

Sonia Jorge, Executive Director of the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) and Head of Digital Inclusion at the Web Foundation, participated in last week’s launch of the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres’ Roadmap for Digital Cooperation. The Roadmap aims to foster global cooperation to tackle the big challenges and embrace the many opportunities that digital technologies offer around the world. 

Sonia called attention to the digital divide that prevents billions of people across the globe from using technology to improve their lives and the digital gender gap that sees men as 21% more likely to be online than women. Sonia urged policymakers to work toward an empowering digital future for all by aiming for affordable and meaningful connectivity. Read her remarks below.

Thank you for the opportunity to contribute to this dialogue today. It is indeed an honour for me, and the members, partners and community of the Alliance for Affordable Internet to contribute to this eminent panel. 

Having heard the Secretary-General and others on this panel speak, I am hopeful for the power of cooperation among all stakeholders. It is indeed urgent to see cooperation in action, and I urge all of us here to hold ourselves to account. 

Our goal here is to achieve digital equality. 

We have a massive challenge ahead — not only because almost half the world remains unconnected, but because a significant percentage of those who are counted as being online are not meaningfully connected. The majority of those without meaningful connectivity are women and girls, mostly in lower and middle income countries. They cannot afford access. They lack the skills to benefit from digital technology. And they face enormous social and cultural obstacles preventing them from benefiting from connectivity. 

In fact, at the current rate of growth, universal affordable internet access will not be achieved until 2043 — a failure to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) target for this year.

We cannot accept a world where digital inequality and exclusion from digital opportunities are the norm. So we must act to change that trend — and change it now.

Our focus must be on closing this digital divide, with special attention paid to closing the gender digital divide — a staggering 51% in South Asia and 37% in Sub Saharan Africa.

We know what we must do to change this picture. But without the resources and collaboration among all stakeholders, that task will be far harder.

Policymakers have the responsibility to establish forward-looking, enabling policy environments. Governments must invest in broadband infrastructure as a public good. 

The private sector must continue to invest and make a special effort to connect the unconnected.

International financial institutions and development aid organisations must increase their support to digital development and partner with countries to secure needed investments across infrastructure, skills, content, and policy frameworks. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has galvanised the case for universal access like never before. We are here meeting virtually today because we are the privileged that benefit from digital technology and access. 

We cannot allow for inequalities and exclusion to persist. If we short change women, girls, and the unconnected, either because they are poor, rural or remote, we are short changing the world. 

We must cooperate to secure affordable and meaningful connectivity for everyone — which we at the Alliance for Affordable Internet see as the ability for women and men to use the internet every day, using an appropriate device with enough data and a fast connection. Without it, we cannot benefit from the life changing opportunities that access to the internet can provide, including access to education, health information and participation in social justice movements. 

Affordable and meaningful connectivity is our sure and resolute way to ensure an inclusive and empowering digital equality that will eventually help us close the gender, social, economic and even racial divides. 

We must mobilise the investments and new financing mechanisms needed to speed up progress and achieve universal access to broadband by 2030. We have estimated that we need $428 billion to do that. It may sound daunting, but with commitment and cooperation, it is possible. 

To close this persistent digital divide in access and use, and make transformative progress in global connectivity, we need to raise the bar for internet access and make sure people can use the full power of technology to improve livelihoods. 

The Roadmap for Digital Cooperation provides clear guidance to advance digital equality. As the broadest global coalition working to make broadband affordable and meaningful for all, with over 90 members, A4AI, the Web Foundation, and its members and partners are committed to universal connectivity. Let’s embrace this opportunity, commit to cooperate and play our parts. We owe it to the women and men who remain unconnected.

To learn more about calculating the digital gender gap using a women-centred method, read the blog post from Web Foundation Senior Research Manager Carlos Iglesias.

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