We must address digital inequalities, if we are to ‘leave no-one behind’

Published on 5 December 2018

Kevin Hernandez

Research Officer

Since the World Wide Web was launched 30 years ago, mobile and internet technologies have spread further and faster than any technology in history. The number of people using the internet worldwide has quadrupled to four billion in just 13 years. Two thirds of the world’s population now own a mobile device. The use of new digital technologies has enabled exciting possibilities for social and economic development.

Digital technologies are used to increase income and employment opportunities, improve civic participation and governance, enhance the provision of healthcare and education, and include more women, people living with disabilities, and rural populations in development processes. However, 3.6 billion people still have no access to the internet and one third of humanity has no mobile phone. Moreover access alone cannot guarantee users will gain significant benefits from digital technologies. With this in mind, it is now more important than ever to understand how experiences of poverty are changing as digital technologies are increasingly used not just for communication but for many activities relevant to development and wellbeing.

Access to digital technologies

An emerging issues paper by Tony Roberts and I, in the digital and technology cluster at IDS, reviews the literature on leaving no one behind in a digital world. Evidence from a wide range of applications and settings found that that the use of mobile phones and the internet is adding new digital dimensions to the experience of poverty. These dimensions include (a) amplifying the disadvantage of the most marginalised by excluding them from technology-enabled digital dividends, and (b) amplifying the advantage of the already privileged by enabling them to secure digital dividends. These twin patterns risk widening social and economic inequalities between the well connected, the less connected and the unconnected. We identified newly forming classes of technology access, which have widely different capacities to make effective use of digital technology for development, with the effect of amplifying pre-existing social and economic divides.

Below are just a few examples included in our report showing how this plays out:

  • Government: Open government data offers citizens access to data so that they can to demand change. However, few open data initiatives are actively promoting inclusion of poor and disadvantaged groups who are less likely to be consulted in the design of data policies or to have their experiences reflected in in official stats.
  • Private sector: Companies are key to delivering digital dividends at scale. However, even digital-based products that specifically target poor people leave some citizens behind. The need to have a mobile phone, pay a deposit, and top-up credit means that the poorest are locked out of ‘pro-poor’ innovations like pre-paid solar energy schemes like m-Kopa.
  • Civil Society: Even when development agencies use technology with the explicit aim of reducing poverty, these efforts can unwittingly amplify existing (dis)advantage and leave the poorest behind. For example, rural telecentres designed to extend the internet to deprived areas were disproportionately utilized by the relatively well-off, educated, English-speaking men.

We found many other examples where use of digital technologies reflects and reproduces existing (dis)advantage. Given the co-existence of digital dividends and digital divides, how do development actors make technological choices that avoid amplifying relative poverty and that leave no one behind? We believe that there is nothing inevitable about these trends. These outcomes are not determined by the technology itself, but rather by the capacity and intent of human actors, which can then be amplified by using digital technology. Digital divides are now understood as multi-faceted, multi-dimensional, non-binary and as a moving target. If distribution is determined by market-forces alone then the already advantaged will gain early and privileged access to each new generation of technology, and the under-privileged will continue to be left behind.

Realising the commitment to leave no-one behind

The Millenium Development Goals were criticised for setting targets that focused attention on the ‘low hanging fruit’, those nearest to escaping poverty who could most easily cross the line – rather that those with the most need. The Sustainable Development Goals therefore include an overarching commitment to ‘leave no-one behind’, stressing the need to put the poorest first.

Many digital development initiatives that rely on mobile phone ownership or internet connections can only reach the ‘low-hanging fruit’ of people who are already digitally connected. Programme managers are often attracted to digital technologies due to the potential to scale up initiatives rapidly. Although use of digital technologies can allow agencies to report higher beneficiary-counts sooner, this is not compatible with “putting the last first” or leaving no one behind. Leaving no one behind requires the political will to prioritise the longer-term challenge of building the capacity of those who are not currently connected.

In an increasingly digital world, unless policy and practice is consciously designed to address the specific needs of the most deprived, then the use of digital technologies risks excluding and further disadvantaging those already being left behind. If it did become politically possible to work with those at most risk of being left behind, then our paper provides evidence that meeting the needs of these groups requires a blended approach that uses non-digital as well as digital approaches. Such blended, multi-channel, and multi-dimensional programmes offer the best prospect of enabling currently marginalised groups to amplify their capacity and intent and to secure digital dividends.


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