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Bridging the digital divide: These tech projects are empowering global inclusion

  • An article by Claude Dyer, Acting Head, EDISON Alliance, World Economic Forum and Sebastian Buckup, Head of Network and Partnerships, Member of the Executive Committee, World Economic Forum

  • The pandemic created a surge in internet use when 466 million people went online for the first time in 2020.

  • Globally, progress has been made on digital inclusion but more action is needed from public and private sector organizations.

  • Technology will be key to achieving this, alongside efforts to increase digital literacy and ensure affordability and accessibility.

In today's interconnected world, digital technology has become synonymous with opportunity, shaping education, healthcare, employment, and civic engagement. The pandemic, while exacerbating existing inequalities, also contributed to increasing adoption of digital technologies. During 2020, 466 million people adopted the internet, with a 7% global user increase and 6% rise in adoption during 2021-2022.

Strides have been made in providing equitable access to education, health, and finance, particularly in the developing world's marginalized communities. Yet, governments and private sector organizations must collaborate to scale efforts and bridge the persistent digital gap between the developed and developing world.

Projects helping to close the digital divide

While 1.3 billion children lack home internet access and only half of the world's schools are online, initiatives like Giga, in partnership with UNICEF and ITU, connected 2.1 million students across 5,500 schools, prioritizing Africa, Latin America, and parts of South Asia. Roadblocks such as lack of funding, partnerships, and expertise hinder these efforts, underscoring the need for government and corporate involvement to facilitate and expand such initiatives.

Tanzania's Fee-Free Basic Education Policy increased enrolments by 1 million pupils from pre- to post-pandemic. Private schools offering advanced ICT technologies like Intelligent Tutoring Systems and state-of-the-art computer labs enhance education quality.

Affordable smart devices and broadband access are pivotal. Innovation can help reduce handset and data costs. Reliance Jio has released a $12 internet-enabled phone. India's digital economy grew 2.4 times faster than the overall economy, with 460 million new bank accounts linked to digital identity.

Pakistan's Asaan Mobile Account scheme has already enabled the creation of 7.8 million bank accounts digitally (38% of them by women), using USSD technology, without the need for internet connectivity. Similar models can be adopted to speed up digital inclusion, enabling better global economic and social participation.

Over half of the African continent lacks basic healthcare, with 15 million Africans falling into poverty annually due to healthcare costs. Digital technologies offer solutions. Partnerships between healthcare and technology providers can enhance healthcare access, as seen in Ghana's NCD care app. This app enables remote monitoring of diabetes and hypertension patients, aiding African health systems burdened by noncommunicable diseases (NCDs). Similar solutions emerged in Kenya and Tanzania.

In India, Apollo Telemedicine Networking Foundation and American Tower Corporation introduced "Digital Dispensaries". These offer teleconsultations, laboratory tests, medications, and health education on NCDs, benefiting 250,000 people in 200 villages across four districts. This partnership was catalyzed by the World Economic Forum’s EDISON Alliance, which aims to accelerate collaboration between the public and private sectors and civil society to focus on digital inclusion in health, education, and finance.

Empowering digital inclusion

Bridging the digital divide is not insurmountable; it is a challenge that, with concerted effort, can be overcome. The developing world possesses immense potential and creativity, and by nurturing digital inclusion, we can unlock new avenues of growth and prosperity. The journey toward digital inclusion is not merely about technology – it is about ensuring that no one is left behind in the digital era. By prioritizing affordability, accessibility, and digital literacy, we can pave the way for a more equitable, interconnected, and empowered world.

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