Digital barriers are blocking social and economic progress — here’s what we can do
Recommendations for civil society, philanthropy, policy makers, and the private sector
Due largely to the pandemic, most now understand the internet to be essential. Less understood is the price we collectively pay when digital inequities prevent civil society organizations from serving their communities.
That’s why we created the State of Digital Inequity report — a global survey asking civil society practitioners about the digital barriers facing them and their communities. Over 7,500 NGOs and foundations responded. Together, they represent 136 countries and collectively serve over 190 million people.
The bad news.
While almost all organizations said that digital technology is now critical to their work, more than three in four said that a lack of internet access, tools, or skills limits their ability to serve their communities effectively (read the Executive Summary for key findings).
The NGOs working across the world to improve the lives of the world’s most marginalized people are being prevented from doing their best work. They work on issues like climate change, disaster relief, child’s health, refugee services, reproductive rights, hunger alleviation. We need them to succeed. That means ensuring they have adequate digital tools to do their work.
The good news.
Achieving digital equity is not an impossible task. We have the technology, operating models, and financial tools we need to connect everyone on the planet to high-speed, affordable internet. But it will take a wide spectrum of actors to play their part.
Here are ways we civil society, philanthropy, policy makers, and corporations can engage.
- Understand how digital inequity impacts your grantees. Our digital privilege can blind us to how painful persistent digital divides are for many others who are less connected. Talk to your grantees about their needs and ask how you can help. Consider conducting workshops or surveys (or re-run this one) so you have your own data to work with. Educate your team and board so they fully understand the reality of digital inequity and how it impedes your grantees and ultimately your mission. If you’d like help facilitating this, reach out.
- Learn how your peers are helping their grantees to overcome digital barriers. Consider joining or starting a donor learning community, check out CIRA’s guide to funding digital equity, and explore TAG’s information on supporting civil society’s technology needs.
- Get started and learn as you go. This issue can’t wait. Grantmakers need to stop assuming others will solve this problem and start investing in digital equity. There are many ways to begin. For instance, you could offer one-time capacity-building grants for your grantees to develop a digital strategy; add a line item for tech in every grant so your partners have the digital tools they need; develop program related investments (PRIs) for critical digital infrastructure. Of course, you can also invest in the many brilliant organizations working directly to close digital divides. Figure out what works for you and your mission, and get started.
Governments, policymakers and regulators
- Form a multi-stakeholder task force to advise government and regulatory authorities on digital infrastructure development, deployment, and the role civil society and other organizations can play to advance digital equity. Here are some policy resources from Mozilla.
- Establish transparency mechanisms through Open Telecom Data policy and regulation to map the availability of internet infrastructure to identify areas that need more investment, where backhaul can be found, and provide a foundation for public engagement on access issues.
- Invest more and differently to advance digital equity. Market-based approaches have failed too many people. Explore models that are successfully connecting the unconnected; invest in unbiased policy advice; support specialized intermediaries that can get communities investment-ready; fully deploy Universal Service & Access Funds (USAFs), and adopt models like those used for Green Banks, providing unsecured loans to internet service providers who are willing and able to end the digital divide in your country.
- Ensure that laws encourage community connectivity providers such as community or municipal networks to operate. Ensure that they are eligible for USAFs, have access to spectrum, and can benefit from accelerated licensing and authorization processes.
- Build digital equity into your ESG. The digital divide has negative environmental, social, and governance implications — in addition to being bad for business and the economy. Working digital equity investments and partnerships into your ESG portfolio can mitigate numerous risks while expanding markets. Read articles from the World Economic Forum and Global Business Coalition for Education to learn more.
- Make digital equity investments as part of your Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programs. Many corporate offices and distribution centers are significantly better connected than the surrounding communities where employees live. Consider partnerships like Santander Consumer USA and Compudopt that leverages existing infrastructure to increase connectivity.
- Speak up for Digital Equity. Connectivity gaps, like all infrastructure failures, limit access to markets and increase the costs of business. These gaps persist in large part because traditional providers often don’t invest in low-income and rural communities. But there are other community-based models that are. Provide political and financial backing for models like these to grow economic opportunities, future customers, and human progress.
- Educate your partners and funders. Use the survey and let them know how they can support digital equity solutions for your community. Include internet access as a direct program cost in your budget.
- Build the case for digital equity with your communities. We have made the survey questions freely available for your use and re-run with your community so you have your own data to work with.
- Partner with those leading the fight for digital equity. Organizations like National Digital Inclusion Alliance, Association for Progressive Communications, Internet Society, EndlessOS.com, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Access Now, TechSoup Global Network, and Electronic Frontier Foundation are among the frontline CSOs who are working on digital rights and equity. Learn from them, connect with them, and figure out how we can all support each other’s work.
These recommendations are not exhaustive. So please, reach out to us with your ideas and suggestions and we’ll use these to develop resources designed to help advance digital equity.
Digitalization is happening. Digital equity — a world in which everyone has the internet access, tools, and skills to participate fully in a digital world — depends on all of us.
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