A digital divide in perspective?

Digitalisation is becoming the new policy focus for the next few years. In fact, Estonia has chosen digitalisation and free movement of data as one of its key priorities during its presidency of the Council of the European Union. In addition, the European Commission recently launched "Digital4Development" to mainstream digital technologies into European Union development policy for the 2017-2020 period in order to contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals. SOLIDAR calls for a stronger engagement of civil society to empower people by improving access to this technical advancement.

Digitalisation may offer new perspectives and opportunities for the developing world. For instance, it could considerably reduce operational costs and administrative burdens. It could increase available and accessible information which in turn may lead to more transparency and less corruption. It could even offer new space for expression and organising, which could potentially benefit civil society.

Societies and human relations are changing and so must we adapt accordingly. While it is important to consider digitalisation as a component of development in order to avoid further inequality gaps between the developed and developing world, it is not without risk.

First of all, it may actually exacerbate existing barriers between and within countries. Middle class jobs or jobs requiring old skills are threatened by automation and digitalisation, while only the highly educated will find their way into the new high skills jobs market. It could strengthen the marginalisation of the extremely poor and most vulnerable groups, impacting the least developed countries the most. While it offers a new space for expression, it also increases the risk of those freely expressing their views on the web being arrested by a repressive government. On the other hand, it may increase the spread of ideologies or fake information. Last but not least, there is the important issue of privacy rights, the use of personal data and a lack of suitable legislation.

From SOLIDAR’s perspective, digitalisation should not overshadow the primary objectives of development. Poverty eradication and the reduction of inequalities through ensuring social protection, decent work, access to quality education and freedom of association have to be strengthened through digitalisation, not undermined as has been the case in recent technological modernisation processes.

While the European Commission recognises the role of civil society in the implementation of "Digital4Development", it is the involvement of the private sector that remains dominant. It is hard to believe that the private sector will invest in remote rural areas where the most excluded people live. Civil society has a key role to play here, from performing sound evaluation by assessing the opportunities and risks for development to ensuring that new digital human rights are respected and no one is left behind.




© UN Photo/Tobin Jones