Approximately 4 billion people are without access to the internet. Digital technologies have revolutionized the way we interact with the world around us, from the way we socialize, do business, and access services, to how governments are run. But despite the unprecedented expansion of digital technologies worldwide, the gains from digital access – including the potential to live freer, healthier, and more prosperous lives – are experienced by those already in positions of privilege, while populations in low- and middle-income countries are predominantly excluded.
To illustrate, at least half of the world’s population is unable to obtain essential health services, and many households are pushed into poverty because they must pay out of their own pockets. Improving access to useful and affordable financial products and services (including transactions, payments, remittances, savings, credit, and insurance) in a sustainable way is a powerful tool to help disadvantaged populations build assets.
Today, products such as mobile savings accounts allow individuals to save for costs associated with future hospital visits and procedures. Mobile money systems enable citizens to pay insurance premiums to government health plans. Digital vouchers incentivise health-seeking behaviour and increase utilisation of life saving health services. The data from the use of digital services is helpful to inform decision makers about the behaviours of vulnerable populations so that they can improve and target health services and financial products directly. Without access to digital technology, the vulnerable continue to fall deeper into poverty while their health suffers.
Inability to access digital solutions can impact more specific marginalised groups as well. According to the GSMA’s Mobile Gender Gap Report, women in low- and middle-income countries are 10 percent less likely to own mobile phones than men, which amounts to 184 million fewer women with mobile access. The gap widens when it comes to using mobile Internet, with 26 percent fewer.
Cost, social norms, security and harassment, trust, and digital literacy are all barriers that prevent many women from connecting to the world in the same way as men, impacting their health and financial status.
In an effort to address some of this last year, BRAC Uganda transformed its microfinance operation into a bank, allowing it to offer savings accounts, money transfers, insurance, and other financial services to rural Ugandan women, with more recent emphasis put on developing a digital strategy that will tailor digital solutions to the needs of its target clients.
“Poor rural women, who are our primary customers, really want savings and deposits,” BRAC’s Shameran Abed told investment news site ImpactAlpha. But access has been limited or non-existent.
For Alistair Mackie of Enclude, Palladium’s Capital Advisory business and the team that advised BRAC on this transformation, empowering women with digital technology is key to social and economic growth. “What we’re really talking about is financial inclusion,” he says. “Technology is the next-stage enabler to include many more communities.”
We also see the effects of low digital access compounding amongst women in more developed economies. Information and Communications Technology (ICT) is a growing profession, and yet only 24 percent of employees in ICT industries globally are women.
Attrition is also higher among women in the digital sector, with research suggesting that family life demands and workplace discrimination (such as unequal pay and less access to advancement opportunities) are to blame. Couple this baseline context with a rural location, having a disability, or being part of an ethnic or religious group that is often discriminated against, and the digital gap increases.
What Can Be Done
The negative outcomes of the digital divide will only worsen for all marginalised populations as the pace of digitisation continues to increase. We need a concerted focus on digital inclusion.
Recognition, commitment and collaboration is the starting point. Twenty countries have made Internet access a fundamental or citizen right, and many have digital inclusion strategies, policies or programs in place. Global initiatives such as the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) (the United Nations specialised agency for ICT) are actively working to coordinate efforts at the global and national levels. Donor agencies such as USAID are developing digital inclusion strategies to ensure open and inclusive digital ecosystems that contribute to development and humanitarian assistance outcomes. Civil society groups and many businesses are prioritising inclusion efforts.
As participants in and often creators of the digital ecosystem, it’s our responsibility to contribute to these efforts as well.
After two decades working in international development tackling some of the largest health challenges facing the world’s population, I now have the privilege of leading Palladium's Data, Informatics, and Analytics Solutions team. I work with colleagues and global partners to develop digital solutions for collecting, analysing, sharing and using data, as well as to operationalise the use of digital products. Both work streams require guiding strategies and operating models to ensure digital inclusion.
The approach my team takes puts these strategies at the heart of all we do, and other businesses can do the same to prevent their work from contributing to an ever-increasing digital divide. For instance, we keep the principles of digital development front and centre to guide the integration of best practices for technology-enabled products and services. We regularly conduct digital skills assessments at the pre-design stage to ensure that products are fit for purpose for end users. We work with governments to develop governance structures for digital information systems and data access and sharing policies to protect individual private information. We develop gender strategies that collect and analyze data from a gendered perspective. And we actively implement, monitor, and evaluate strategies to ensure that they’re effective.
Digital inclusion is a cornerstone of inclusive growth, and considering the pace of digital advancement, now is the time to recognise the digital inclusion opportunities and challenges faced by organisations. We have an opportunity to bring first-hand practical insights into functioning in a digital world to shape consensus on how we do business. Join me in ensuring that none are left out of today’s knowledge and information society. We can close the digital divide.