The opportunities of digital inclusion and the tech behind it

Digital inclusion projects
Image: United Nations ESCAP

There are 2.9 billion people worldwide who do not have internet access or the opportunities to engage in the digital economy. Despite the technological advancements, 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 declaration on the commemoration of the 75th Anniversary of the United Nations. The world pledged to improve digital cooperation and maximize digital technologies.

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

The World Economic Forum reported in May 2022 that with 95% of the world’s population residing within the mobile broadband network range, the digital divide is less about connectivity and more about 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 high-speed broadband.

While the digital divide is more substantial in rural areas and disproportionate for certain groups, for example, affecting more women than men, it still impacts both developed and underdeveloped countries. About half of the U.S. population does not have access to broadband speed due to a lack of coverage or skills, Harvard Business School says.

TechRepublic spoke to Jonathan Wong, chief of technology and innovation of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), and Anna Osbourne, head of marketing and communication at Good Things Foundation in the U.K., to understand the challenges of digital inclusion and the technology driving opportunities.

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

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

Cutting people from easy access to information, learning and essential services translates into billions lost.

Technology and tech projects driving digital inclusion

In Asia and the Pacific, UN’s ESCAP warns that despite the significant opportunities, women in the region are constrained by different factors. Women are affected by the gender gap in mobile phone ownership, are paid lower wages, have lower levels of education, and lower levels of financial literacy, Wong told TechRepublic.

Wong recognizes that the pandemic accelerated digital economies and societies at an unimaginable pace but assures that the digital transformation has not been without challenges. “In the Asia-Pacific region alone, over two billion people do not have 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 to operate and trade,” Wong explained.

ESCAP—working 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 a policy and a regulatory environment that enables the poor and women to benefit from digital financial products and services.

Projects, where governments, organizations, the private sector and the public cooperate, emerge as new pathways to resolve the digital inclusion crisis. In the U.K., where 10 million people still lack the most basic digital skills, 1.5 million do not have internet access, and 2 million struggle to afford it, Good Things Foundation launched a new social infrastructure to tackle digital exclusion.

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

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 partnered with Virgin Media O2 to tackle “data poverty” in the U.K. through the National Databank. Virgin Media O2 pledged free mobile data to revert the digital inclusion crisis in the country. Virgin Media O2 announced, in July 2022, they were expanding the program with an extra 15 million GB of free data to help people stay connected as the cost of living crisis escalates in the U.K.

Osbourne explained that the National Databank 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 approximately 500,000 free SIMs and mobile data, donated by Virgin Media O2, Vodafone and Three.

Good Things Foundation is also establishing the National Device Bank to support people who can’t get online because they can’t afford a device of their own. This initiative sets out to close the gaps in technology device ownership through tech device donations.

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

SEE: The COVID-19 gender gap: Why women are leaving their jobs and how to get them back to work (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

“In the Asia-Pacific, the private sector plays a key role in developing digital technologies, ensuring that businesses developing such technologies are “inclusive” is an important policy agenda for governments striving for digital inclusion, arguably more so than any specific technology itself,” Wong said.

Tech companies can tap into new markets, found at the base of the economy, by creating accessible and affordable technology products and services that follow these inclusive policies.

ESCAP and the U.N. Capital Development Fund (UNCDF) also initiated the Women Fintech MSME Innovation Fund to support FinTechs, financial service providers and innovators to develop, test, and scale solutions that help women entrepreneurs to succeed.

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

One of the most significant barriers women entrepreneurs face in growing and scaling their business is access to finance. Limited collateral, lack of financial history and low digital literacy are key challenges facing women micro-entrepreneurs in accessing finance from banks.

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

Additionally, recently—through a partnership between the ASEAN Secretariat and ESCAP—the Economic Ministers of ASEAN Member States adopted the Guidelines for Promoting Inclusive Businesses in ASEAN, making it the first region in the world to adopt such a set of guidelines.

“Ensuring that the digital transformation happening all around us does not become another facet of deep inequality is probably one of the greatest challenges we face as countries start to rebuild,” Wong said.

In the U.K Osborne said that the barriers to digital inclusions are unlikely to be overcome through technology solutions but rather through support that improves skills, reduces costs and removes access barriers. This, Osborne said, must be done in collaboration with the industry, government, the third sector and communities.

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