Digital Dividends for the Bottom Billion: “Technology is at its best when it’s inclusive”

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By Jenna Spagnolo and Lydia Deerheart

Internet usage visualized.
Internet usage visualized. Image credit: World Bank

We were excited to host a panel at the Silicon Valley launch for the 2016 World Development Report at #RightsCon with leaders from the World Bank, Access Now, Mozilla, the United Nations and ITU to explore the data behind why the digital era has so far failed to deliver equitable results and what work needs to be done to improve the lives of everyone around the world with Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs).

In terms of global development, we can all agree that the original promises of the benefits the Internet would bring weren’t fully realized. Developing countries were supposed to automatically gain prosperity and democracy, enhancing the lives of all of their citizens, as soon as they plugged in the ethernet cable. While this hasn’t exactly happened, it’s true that many people have created livelihoods due to Internet access, helping to shape new markets and boost economies. The Internet has also given billions of people a voice in an unprecedented way, being able to reach and appeal to wider audiences. Even those living under repressive governments have been able to organize and communicate due to the Internet. But overall, the effects of the digital era have been unevenly felt, with some gaining the majority of the dividends while others lag behind. By holding this conversation we aim to accelerate the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Quote and Periscope Images for Events (7)

“The Internet itself won’t change human behavior,” asserted Mitchell Baker, Chairwoman of Mozilla. “For equality, it requires human will.” One of the major themes of the talk was that technology alone can’t substitute for bad policy or lack of adoption resources  to reverse inequalities in society. Understandably, it’s the poorest and most wealth disproportionate countries that are pushing the most for equitable access, as Gary Fowlie, the Head of the ITU Liaison Office to the United Nations pointed out. Deepak Mishra, Co-Director of the 2016 World Development Report at the World Bank, talked about digital advocates who equate the importance of Internet access to having access to clean water; that comparison might be hard to reckon with until you consider all the people who rely on digital technology to run businesses. In today’s modern world, a thriving digital economy can mean the difference between extreme poverty and survival.

Image credit: Anar Simpson

From left to right: Mitchell Baker, Gary Fowlie, Ritu Sharma, Deepak Mishra, and Ephraim Kenyanito. Image credit: Anar Simpson

But how can the world build thriving digital economies and avoid the dangers of rising inequality?
Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, there is a need for a solid socio-political and economic foundation to which tech can be a supporting benefit. This is what the 2016 World Development Report refers to as analog components. A government that promotes competition, business development, transparency, literacy, gender parity, digital skills and inclination is the one that will adequately serves its citizens in the move towards a digital economy.  

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Another problem is that there’s also often a lack of financial incentive for tech companies to develop programs with a solely humanitarian focus. Baker shared her pride in how Mozilla was a pioneer of diverse languages for local interfaces. This endeavor took a lot of time, effort, and didn’t deliver much of a financial pay-off. Not exactly a compelling issue for the market to solve. This was certainly one of the central tensions of the panel discussion, as Fowlie mused on how to compel Silicon Valley to speak the language of development and look beyond the short-term power of the dollar to the long-term benefits of expanding access. Some tech companies are taking the lead in this arena, and there is hope for more in that direction.

There’s also a need for all governments, everywhere, to uphold equal access to information and freedom of speech by protecting net neutrality. Without this, the Internet will be less equitable for everyone and make implementing the SDGs much more difficult. As Mitchell pointed out, “The open Internet is a radical thing. If this open Internet we have goes away, it won’t come back for a very long time.”  In the extreme, Ephraim Kenyanito of Access Now discussed how Internet shutdowns are tools from repressive governments to exacerbate inequalities. We as global citizens need to stand up against anything that restricts citizens from expressing themselves fully. We must prioritize human rights as we continue to create the Internet of the future.

The Conversation Continues

Social Media for Nonprofits and our new initiative, SDG Nexus, are hosting a series of conversations to help ensure that the Internet is a tool wielded carefully and strategically in the pursuit of eradicating extreme poverty, taking climate action, reaching gender parity, and creating a just world that we all want to live in. While we started with this Silicon Valley launch of the World Development Report at the RightsCon conference, we will continue talking about the role technology can play to harness Information and Communication Technologies for development and broadly to accelerate the Sustainable Development Goals; in short, how we can use tech for good. Join us to delve into the details about how to leverage Internet-powered technologies for the greater good by signing up for an event on April 6th that focuses on net neutrality in India and the pathway to connecting the next billion people to the Internet. We will be hosting the conversation in partnership with Internet Society-Bay Area, TechSoup Global and the Churchill Club.

Ultimately, as Mishra reminded us at the end of the panel, we should feel hopeful about the potential for positive change, but we also shouldn’t get comfortable just yet. The promises that seemed inevitable in the 90s have still not been realized, and it will take a lot of collaboration before all of us- especially those of us who need it the most- realize the dividends from the digital transformation.

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