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The opportunity for digital inclusion and the technology behind it

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Image: United Nations ESCAP

There are 2.9 billion people in the world who do not have internet access and the opportunity to participate in the digital economy. Despite technological advances, the digital divide continues to affect all aspects of life, from banking to healthcare, education, telecommunications and media.

Two years ago, on September 21, 2022, world leaders recognized the importance of technology as a fundamental global issue in a General Assembly declaration marking the 75th anniversary of the United Nations. The world has committed to improving digital cooperation and making the most of digital technologies.

But digital inclusion does more than just fill in the gaps. This is our chance to build a just and equitable society and a prosperous economy.

The World Economic Forum in May 2022 stated that with 95% of the world’s population living within range of a mobile broadband network, the digital divide is less about connectivity and more about a lack of digital know-how and a limited set of devices. reported to be Even Internet users struggle to get quality service at an affordable price. Only his 53% of the world’s population has access to high-speed broadband.

The digital divide is more pronounced in rural areas and disproportionate to certain groups. For example, it affects women more than men, but it still affects both developed and developing countries. About half of the US population does not have access to broadband speeds due to lack of coverage or skills, according to Harvard Business School.

TechRepublic spoke with Jonathan Wong, Head of Technology and Innovation at the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) and Anna Osborne, Head of Marketing and Communications at the Good Things Foundation in the UK, to discuss digital inclusion. and technology drive opportunity.

From saving money to improving job prospects to the ability to work flexibly, digital inclusion has many benefits for society, organizations and individuals, Osbourne explained.

At the societal level, organizations and governments can benefit from channel shifts, the ability to deliver more efficient services and a skilled workforce, Osbourne added.

Billions of dollars are lost when people lose easy access to information, learning and essential services.

Technologies and technology projects that promote digital inclusion

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

Wong recognizes that the pandemic has accelerated the digital economy and society at an unimaginable pace, but assures us that digital transformation has not been without its challenges. In Asia Pacific alone, more than 2 billion people do not have access to the digital world, Wong revealed.

Digital technology has helped governments implement social protection schemes at speed and scale, and has enabled e-Health and online education. Digital finance and e-commerce have helped businesses stay in business and keep trading, he explained, Wong.

ESCAP, in collaboration with the Griffith Asia Institute, recently released a policy guidebook. This guide provides policy makers with a framework for developing a policy and regulatory environment that enables the poor and women to benefit from digital financial products and services.

Projects that bring together governments, organizations, the private sector, and public institutions are emerging as new avenues to solve the digital inclusion crisis. In the UK, where 10 million people still lack the most basic digital skills, 1.5 million have no internet access and 2 million are struggling to access the internet, the Good Things Foundation is working to address digital exclusion. We launched a new social infrastructure to tackle

According to Osborne, the barriers to people’s digital participation are complex, but broadly fall into four areas: skills, motivation, confidence and access.

The foundation partners with national, regional and local organizations and communities to help those affected by lack of digital inclusion policies. Last year, the company partnered with Virgin Media O2 to tackle the UK’s data shortage through the National Databank. Virgin Media O2 promised free mobile data to reverse the country’s digital inclusion crisis. Virgin Media O2 announced in July 2022 that it will expand its program with an additional 15 million GB of free data to help people stay connected as the cost of living crisis escalates in the UK.

Osbourne explained that National Databank is a national food bank for connectivity data, helping hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people in communities across the country. The initiative has already distributed nearly 500,000 free SIMs and mobile data donated by Virgin Media O2, Vodafone and Three.

The Good Things Foundation also established the National Device Bank to help people who can’t connect to the internet because they can’t afford their own devices. This initiative aims to bridge the technology device ownership gap through technology device donations.

In Asia Pacific, ECAP continues its work to ensure inclusion at the heart of the digital transformation the world has embraced since the pandemic began. As in the UK, the private sector is key to creating opportunities.

See: COVID-19 Gender Gap: Why Women Are Leaving Work and How to Get Women Back to Work (Free PDF) (TechRepublic)

In the Asia-Pacific region, the private sector plays an important role in the development of digital technologies, and ensuring that the companies that develop such technologies are inclusive is important for governments striving for digital inclusion. It’s a policy issue, perhaps even more important than the specific technology itself, Wong said.

By creating accessible and affordable technology products and services that adhere to these overarching policies, technology companies can enter new markets at the base of the economy.

ESCAP and the United Nations Capital Development Fund (UNCDF) also launched the Women’s Fintech MSME Innovation Fund to help fintechs, financial service providers and innovators develop, test and scale solutions that help women entrepreneurs succeed. have started.

Through this fund, we launched the KOTRA-Riel bookkeeping app in collaboration with SHE Investments. It is the first tool designed to support small entrepreneurs in Cambodia to plan, manage cash flow and access formal financial services, he added.

One of the biggest barriers women entrepreneurs face to growing and expanding their businesses is access to finance. Limited collateral, lack of financial history and low digital literacy are the main challenges women micro-entrepreneurs face when raising money from banks.

KOTRA-Riel is tackling these challenges by creating a simple, user-friendly experience that allows non-tech-savvy people to track business earnings and expenses with the click of a button, Wong said. added.

Furthermore, recently, through a partnership between the ASEAN Secretariat and ESCAP, the Economic Ministers of ASEAN Member States have adopted guidelines for promoting inclusive business in ASEAN, becoming the first region in the world to adopt a set of such guidelines. became.

Preventing the digital transformation happening around us from becoming another facet of deep inequality is perhaps one of the biggest challenges we face as the country begins to rebuild, Wong said. says Mr.

Barriers to digital inclusion are unlikely to be overcome by technology solutions, but rather by support that improves skills, reduces costs and removes barriers to access, said Osborne of the UK. I was. Osborne said this has to be done in partnership with industry, government, the third sector and the community.

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