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Digital Divide: Addressing the digital replica of real-world dynamics of exclusion

Updated: Apr 2

Digital technology is becoming not only the cornerstone of global economic competitiveness and progress in developing countries, but also a present-day analogue of the power struggles of the Cold War era. The digital revolution has brought about unprecedented connectivity and opportunities, but it has also widened the gap between those who have access to digital resources and those who do not. This expanding gap, known as the digital divide, poses a significant threat to humanitarian efforts, particularly in reaching and assisting marginalised populations.

Despite advancements in infrastructure in certain regions, achieving inclusivity in digital solutions can still prove challenging. Often, technology overlooks the unique needs and abilities of marginalised communities, further exacerbating existing disparities. Compounding this issue are language barriers, cultural nuances, and limited digital literacy, all of which contribute to the difficulty of using digital tools effectively in humanitarian efforts.

As we know access to digital technologies is essential in today's world. However, those who lack access are at a disadvantage in terms of education, employment opportunities, and civic engagement, which further marginalises already vulnerable populations. As our society becomes increasingly reliant on digital platforms for essential services, the digital divide risks deepening existing divides along socioeconomic lines.

The issue of digital access and divides is a complex one that involves multiple dynamic variables, one that is constantly evolving and changing as the social and economic use of technology evolves. To fully understand the complexity of the issue, it's essential to grasp that the "digital divide" encompasses more than just the gap between those who have access to the internet and mobile devices and those who don't. There are additional overlapping divides in digital skills, digital use, quality of infrastructure, access to content, and more.

According to recent ITU estimates, around 5.3 billion people, which is roughly 66% of the world's population, have access to the internet. This means that there are still 2.7 billion people who do not have access to the internet, highlighting the need for significant progress to achieve universal and meaningful connectivity by the targeted year of 2030. In countries across Europe and the USA, between 80 and 90 % of the population have access to the internet. In the Arab States and Asia-Pacific countries, around 70 & 64 % of the population respectively, meanwhile in Africa only 40 % of the population has access to the Internet. For the least developed countries, universal connectivity remains a distant prospect, as currently, only 36 % of the population has access to the internet. 

“We must not forget that behind this data are people who are not able to access the Internet and enjoy the life-changing benefits that it can bring in the era of digital transformation"

Moreover, the digital divide is not limited to differences between states, but also exists within states. Even when developing regions or countries acquire and implement technologies, they risk exacerbating domestic inequalities due to the high cost of technology and the rural-urban infrastructure divide. Reducing such inequality within a country is crucial for development, as countries with more equal distribution of resources tend to have better political stability and resilience, and are less prone to conflict and fragility. According to the statistics of 2020, 76% of households in urban areas had internet access at home, which was almost double the rate of internet access in rural areas (39%).

The digital divide has been often associated with a development gap, in cases where it restricts progress and limits opportunities. Digital tools are crucial for the proper functioning of hospitals, schools, governments, and businesses. This challenge is further compounded as advancements in technologies such as artificial intelligence become increasingly prevalent in our daily routines.

It is essential to acknowledge that the notion of digital inclusion should extend beyond basic connectivity and address the structural barriers that impede on people’s ability to connect. Failure to do so may exacerbate pre-existing exclusion or even create new forms of it.  Achieving equity in technology also requires acknowledging and addressing gender-specific challenges. According to ICR research, women and girls face gender-specific obstacles when it comes to accessing quality technology. These obstacles include high costs, limited access to public spaces where they can gain exposure to technology, lack of technical confidence due to limited access and desire for access, and most importantly, harmful attitudes and behaviours that discourage women and girls from using phones and the internet.

That is because many digital spaces reflect the preferences, biases, and motivations of those who have had the most opportunities to access computers and the internet over the years. As a result, technology design and development often favour specific groups, such as men over women, urban over rural, and the economically advantaged over the disadvantaged. For this reason, it becomes crucial to take an intersectional approach when discussing digital inclusion. Intersectionality considers systemic inequities like systematic racism, gender-based discrimination, unconscious bias, discrimination against LGBTQ+ communities, barriers for persons with disabilities, and other inequities faced by marginalised populations or persons in vulnerable situations. 

When referring to people facing barriers, it is important to recognize variables such as gender, age, ability, race, tribe, caste, culture, geography, migration or displacement status, ethnicity, religion, education, language, and socio-economic status. For example, rural populations face exceptional geographical and physical barriers to connecting online. Additionally, cultural expectations might make it even more challenging for rural women to connect, as outlined above. Moreover, the English language is the most widely used language on the internet, which gives an advantage to English speakers and allows them to participate in the digital economy more easily. However, these barriers are difficult to address as they are often deeply rooted in societal structures and are not as explicit as other obstacles.

It becomes clear, therefore, that digital environments and tools often reflect the same exclusionary dynamics that exist in our physical world. Technology can amplify both positive and negative effects, which can magnify the underlying intentions and abilities of individuals and institutions. This understanding of power and technology in humanitarian contexts highlights the issues surrounding the limited participation and agency of affected individuals in digital approaches.

Inclusive design is about creating processes that cater to the needs of everyone, not just the privileged. This approach aims to meet the needs of those who have been traditionally marginalised or are in situations of vulnerability. It is not enough to include marginalised individuals and vulnerable groups but the main focus should be to co-design a process that is human-centred, needs-based, and inclusive. Effective humanitarian interventions require a collaborative approach between aid organisations and local communities. The latter's unique needs and challenges must be thoroughly understood to ensure that technological interventions are culturally sensitive and contextually appropriate. The implementation of initiatives aimed at improving digital literacy and skills training has the potential to empower individuals to fully utilise digital resources for their benefit. Furthermore, partnerships between technology companies and policymakers are essential in advocating for policies that promote universal access to digital technologies.

Dealing with the intricacies of digital divides can be incredibly challenging, especially because each country has its own particular systems and circumstances that make one-size-fits-all policy solutions inadequate. However, since this is a cross-border issue, finding solutions requires a global consensus. It's important that we prioritise equity and inclusivity in digital transformation initiatives. By doing so, we can ensure that no one is left behind in this rapidly-evolving digital age.


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