Digital equity is critical for civil society’s success — new survey

Three urgent steps we need to break down digital barriers

Digital equity is critical for civil society’s success — new survey

This post features findings from the State of Digital Inequity Report.

For many of us, the holidays were a welcome time to disconnect. To stop checking email and get off Slack. We used our devices for video calls with family, to look at cute holiday pictures, and to catch up on the movies we’ve missed. Now we’re back at work, fully online and reconnecting with colleagues. 

It’s different, of course, for nearly half of humanity who do not have access to the internet, digital tools and services, and aren’t part of the digital economy. For too many of those unconnected, this year will end as it has begun, with their families falling farther behind as the economy continues to digitize around them.

This unconnected half are overwhelmingly our most vulnerable, most marginalized communities. They are the people philanthropy and civil society seek to serve. This is why we’ve carried out a survey asking civil society participants about the barriers they and their communities face when it comes to digital equity.

Digital Equity
A state in which all individuals have the digital access, tools, and skills they need to operate in our digital society. This report uses Connect Humanity’s Digital Equity Framework which has five broad elements: Infrastructure & Access, Affordability, Digital Skills, Policy, and Content. Only when people have the infrastructure that enables high-speed, affordable access, the tools and skills to take advantage of it, policies that ensure they are safe online, and content that is relevant to their needs, can we fully realize the power of the internet.

Nearly 7,500+ NGOs and foundations from 136 countries, who collectively serve over 190 million people responded. The news is grim. 

  • Just 12% of respondents strongly agreed that the communities they serve have internet connectivity.
  • 43% said internet access was too expensive for their organization and 67% said the cost was too high for the people they serve.
  • More than 3 in 4 participants said that a lack of internet access, tools, or skills limits their ability to serve their communities effectively.

A huge digital barrier stands in the way of civil society organizations working improving people’s lives. The good news? This is a solvable problem. We have the technology and the operating and financing models we need to connect everyone on the planet to high-speed, affordable internet. But to accelerate progress, I believe three things need to happen:

1. All civil society organizations must see digital equity as part of their mission

Whether an organization works on hunger or human rights, climate change or child health, digital inequity is holding them back from delivering for their communities. 95% of organizations responding to the survey said the internet is critical to their ability to do their work. We must, therefore, stop seeing digital equity as a siloed issue and start seeing it as a foundational condition for civil society as a whole to succeed. 

Every right we have has been fought for and won by civil society. Civil society must organize citizens to demand their rights are achieved through whatever models are best placed to deliver. As argued in a recent World Economic Forum whitepaper, with more public-private cooperation, civil society can lead the charge on inclusive solutions for connectivity.

2. Philanthropy must get off the bench

Given that internet access is now critical for progress across almost every issue that matters to the philanthropic sector, you might think philanthropic funders would be heavily invested in solving the digital divide. Sadly, you’d be wrong. In an analysis of giving to digital equity causes, we found just 0.05% of overall giving from large US foundations between 2010-2019 went to efforts to close the digital divide. This has to change so that civil society has the resources to break digital poverty cycles and secure progress towards a world where everyone has the internet connectivity, devices and skills they need to survive and thrive.

3. We must move past market-based solutions.

Everyone — philanthropy, civil society, policy makers, investment communities — must recognise the need to go beyond the market-driven corporate model if we’re to succeed in building broadband for everyone. 

91% percent of respondents to the survey believe that internet access is a basic right. It’s a right we’ve collectively committed to deliver for everyone by 2030, through Sustainable Development Goal 9C. And yet, over decades, the model we’ve used as the dominant way to secure internet access for everyone has failed — even with hundreds of billions in public subsidies. The economics simply don’t stack up for profit-driven companies to connect many rural, remote and low-income communities.

But there are financing and operating models that can deliver. From community-based broadband networks and public-private partnerships, to blended financing that combines public grants, impact investments, and commercial capital, broadband champions are showing it can be done. We must support these innovators.

One survey respondent who provides child education programs in India said: “Covid has shown us how important digital connectivity is. We were not able to connect with over half our community or team because of a lack of internet. We could not reach the children with educational services because of lack of connectivity.”

The survey has made it clear how far we have to go — but also how important this mission is for the lives of the most marginalized and the success of civil society. We know the problem. We have solutions. Now we need action. If those who gathered in Devos last week for the World Economic Forum mobilize their networks and financial muscle to seed partnerships and empower civil society organizations, we can get the job done.

Read the report here

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