Speaking to the Financial Times recently, Microsoft founder Bill Gates defined the drive to connect the world’s population to the Internet as a secondary requirement to eradicating disease and malnutrition: “I certainly love the IT thing,” he said. “But when we want to improve lives, you’ve got to deal with more basic things like child survival, child nutrition,” adding: “Take this malaria vaccine, [this] weird thing that I’m thinking of. Hmm, which is more important, connectivity or malaria vaccine? If you think connectivity is the key thing, that’s great. I don’t.”
Bill might be right about the Internet this time, but I wonder whether the educational benefits of giving people cheap and easy digital connectivity and access to the world’s knowledge could help us to address other social ills, including malnutrition?
The term ‘digital divide’ was coined a number of years ago to describe the gap that exists between those who have fast access to the Internet and those who don’t. The divide implies social and economic disadvantage, an inability to engage easily with the modern world and a deficit in the social and educational opportunities enjoyed by those people and societies better digitally connected.
Since the term was coined, fixed and mobile telecoms operators have been busy bankrolling and rolling out ever-faster broadband connections to more people over copper, fibre and 3G and 4G technologies. As a result of this investment, high-speed broadband access is becoming ubiquitous in many countries around the world. Yet despite this progress of technology and infrastructure, the digital divide remains – even in highly broadband-developed markets.
New research published by the Economist Intelligence Unit has found that a third of telecoms executives, government officials and policy makers believe the digital divide is getting wider in their country. Where the major hurdle used to be a lack of investment in advanced high-speed communications infrastructure, particularly in rural areas, affordability relative to income and a lack of digital skills have now been identified as the key barriers to be overcome.
There is a significant body of evidence today that enabling people to participate in what some call ‘the digital economy’ brings social and economic benefits for individuals, businesses and for nations. These benefits include instant access to the world’s knowledge to boosts to national gross domestic product. But according to the latest ITU data, 4.4 billion people worldwide remain offline, meaning the challenge ahead remains significant.
According to the European Union, around 90 percent of all jobs require some level of digital skills today. 87 percent of survey respondents told the EIU that digital skills – defined as a person’s ‘ability to access, adapt and create knowledge via the use of information and communications technologies’ will be a lot more important in just three years time.
Small businesses can find new customers and new markets on the Internet. With more and more employers recruiting exclusively online today, just getting a job requires digital literacy and access. Food chains are being improved by online tracking from the birth of livestock to its eventual sale as food. Even democracy is becoming digital with governments around the world moving the delivery of public services to the Internet in an attempt to reduce the cost of service delivery.
Could addressing the digital divide help us address disease, malnutrition and infant mortality? I don’t know but I do believe that mankind might be capable of addressing more than one social issue at a time, and that solving one social inequity might help us address another.