This annotated bibliography collates extracts from recently published flagship policy reports on digital inclusion in international development, highlighting the key messages, trends and issues.
The digital inclusion agenda seeks to close the gaps in access to, and adoption of, fast evolving information and communication technology (ICTs) services, particularly mobile phones and the
internet. It is an important aspect of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as both an end and a means to the cross-cutting policy aim of ‘leaving no one behind’. The potential gains from
digital technologies are high, however, they often remain unrealised (World Bank, 2016).
There is a large amount of recently published policy-relevant literature on this broad-ranging subject. All of the literature remarks on the gender digital divide and some papers focus entirely
on this divide (see section 3). However, other dimensions – such as disability – were not highlighted as important issues or included in the executive summaries.
Key messages emerging in the literature include:
- Nearly all countries in the world saw improvements to their ICT technologies in 2016, according to the ICT Development Index (IDI), yet the gap between the highest and lowest performing countries (one measure of the digital divide) remained almost unchanged since 2015 (ITU, 2017a).
- Mobile phone ownership in the developing world was about 80% in 2015, and steadily rising (World Bank, 2016). Factors contributing to this trend include: the mobile industry’s expanding infrastructure and improving quality of service leading to better mobile networks, increased connectivity for those previously excluded, and increasing user sophistication in using mobile phones and digital services (GSMA, 2017).
- Global internet penetration is increasing and is expected to reach 50% in 2017, up from just 20% a decade ago (A4AI, 2017). Factors contributing to this trend include increasing availability of mobile broadband rather than fixed broadband, and rising internet bandwidth (ITU, 2017c).
- Increased access to ICT allows many people to access services and information that previously were out of reach, e.g. those in rural areas, people with disabilities (World Bank, 2016).
- Increases in access to ICT does not necessarily translate into increased usage. E.g. While most people in the world live in areas where mobile-broadband services are offered, many people do not actually use them.
- Effective usage of ICTs is shaped by a range of issues such as the quality of access to ICTs (internet access in the home or in public access points, the speed of connection), the skills individuals have (literacy), and a range of socio-economic factors.
- Persistent digital divides intersect across gender, geography (rural/urban), age, education, and income dimensions within each country.
- The gender gap means that the proportion of women using the Internet is 12% lower than the proportion of men using the Internet worldwide (ITU, 2017b). While this gap has narrowed in most regions since 2013, it has widened in Africa. Women on average are 14% less likely to own a mobile phone than men in low and middle-income countries (GSMA, 2015).
- There are many barriers to digital inclusion. E.g. on the supply side, infrastructure costs for delivering new technologies are often too high to lead to investment and innovation operating expenses for delivering to rural populations will remain high and revenues low. On the demand side, some people remain unconnected despite living in areas with viable Internet access due to (digital) illiteracy and the lack of locally relevant content. ICT services unaffordable for many (GSMA, 2014). Social norms shape who is confident to use new technologies and who is allowed to own devices.
- Technology is often presented as a silver bullet solution to international development challenges such as inclusion, however, it can exclude more than include.
- The digital divide looks set to entrench already existing power imbalances. (Ramalingham & Hernandez, 2016). Access to the Internet is not enough; policy-makers must address broader socio-economic inequalities and help people acquire the skills they need to take full advantage of the Internet (ITU, 2017a).
- A data revolution is needed to better understand who uses the Internet, where and how. (ITU, 2017a), especially disaggregated by gender and by other typically discriminated groups (Broadband Commission, 2017).
- Progress on ICT requires collaboration and partnerships across diverse and private and public actors, including related to funding (GSMA, 2017; Broadband Commission, 2017).
- The pace of policy change has so far been ‘far too slow’ (A4AI, 2017; World Bank, 2016), possible solutions to explore include: employing public access solutions to close the digital divide, fostering market competition and protecting consumers through policies; promoting infrastructure and resource sharing through clear policy incentives and regulatory certainty; and making effective use of universal service and access funds (A4AI, 2017). Digital development strategies need to be broader than ICT strategies (World Bank, 2016).
It appears from this rapid review of the literature that the digital inclusion concepts used in the reports reviewed in this query have developed in tandem with the ‘leaving no one behind’ agenda, as demonstrated by the explicit references many make to the SDGs and the language of ‘inclusion’. Bringing these two agendas together could use the ‘digital inclusion’ agenda focus on disaggregating data and understanding how digital development relates to existing power imbalances, and DFID’s policy commitment to prioritise the ‘most excluded’ in DFID’s work.