Why we can’t meet the SDGs without ending the digital divide
This piece was originally published in the World Economic Forum Agenda.
On 1 January 2016, the world’s nations put forward a to-do list of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to create a fairer, healthier, more sustainable world by 2030. It was a moment of great optimism.
As we cross the halfway mark to 2030, the flame of optimism has dimmed and the time we have to meet the goals is running out. To regain ground, there’s one SDG to which we must pay closer attention: SDG 9C, which commits to the provision of universal and affordable access to the internet in the least developed countries.
As the pandemic made painfully clear, access to fast, reliable broadband is foundational to progress in today’s world – for individuals, for communities, for enterprise and for economies. As the world digitizes, we cannot achieve the SDGs without meeting goal 9C.
The things we need to meet the SDGs – education, healthcare, workforce, economic development and essential service programming – increasingly depend on digital infrastructure and access. If, by 2030, we’ve not made significant progress on delivering ubiquitous internet access, billions of people will fall further behind as public goods and services continue to move online without them.
Expansion of internet access is too slow
Though the pandemic has shed light on the digital divide, progress to address it remains far too slow. Figures from the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) suggest one in three people globally live with no internet access. This number underplays the true scale of the challenge because it counts anyone who’s accessed the internet on any device as connected, including the many billions of people who don’t have the home connection, devices, digital skills or the economic means to use the internet in the way that you and I take for granted.
They don’t have the connectivity they need for online learning, to manage finances or to apply for a job. That harms their life opportunities and our ability to address global challenges.
The digital have-nots of global civil society
To understand the impact of the digital divide across SDG issues, Connect Humanity created the State of Digital Inequity report, surveying thousands of Civil Society Organizations (CSO) that work to improve the lives of the most marginalized and vulnerable people on earth. More than 7,500 CSOs from 136 countries, which collectively serve more than 190 million people, contributed, answering questions about the digital barriers that face them and their communities.
The bad news?
While 95% of respondents said digital technology is now critical to their work, more than three in four said a lack of internet access, tools or skills limits their ability to serve their communities effectively.
These organizations work on issues such as disaster relief, child health, refugee services, reproductive rights, hunger alleviation and economic development. If we’re to meet the SDGs, they must succeed and that means ensuring they and the people they serve have the digital tools they need.
The good news is that closing the digital divide is entirely possible. We have the technology, operating models and financial tools to connect everyone to high-speed, affordable internet. But all of us must play our part.
Action to expedite digital equity
This requires unprecedented energy, collaboration and action from civil society, philanthropy, policy-makers and corporations.
As with other rights-based struggles, civil society organizations must play a leading role – and the survey shows that the success of their missions depends on it. A recent WEF whitepaper rightly argues that civil society must be a crucial player in public-private partnerships to ensure they are successful and advance the interests of their communities. Initiatives like The Edison Alliance, which stimulate cross-sector efforts to address the challenge, are also critical.
Philanthropic communities must recognise digital equity as foundational to achieving their wider goals and commit significantly more grant dollars. Our analysis of giving to digital equity causes found just 0.05% of funds from large US foundations between 2010-2019 went to efforts to close the digital divide. It’s time for philanthropy to get off the bench and invest in the digital resiliency of their grantees, and in programmes to overcome digital barriers.
Corporations also have an important role. By baking digital equity into ESG efforts they can support the SDGs while enhancing their bottom line. After all, more people online means a more vibrant economy and more customers. Connectivity should also be a factor in corporate social responsibility programmes. Organizations like Okta, which dedicates money and staff hours to help NGOs use technology more effectively, are walking the talk, but you don’t have to be a tech company to get started. Organizations like Connect Humanity and the Edison Alliance are here to help.
Governments have more financial power and policy muscle than anyone to bear on the challenge. In addition to making policy and regulatory improvements, they must invest to connect their hard-to-reach populations, including by fully deploying Universal Service and Access Funds (USAFs). This cash must be spent wisely. That means supporting broadband provider models like municipal networks, community broadband and cooperatives that are successfully connecting the unconnected, rather than just subsidizing market-based approaches that have failed too many for too long.
These recommendations are not exhaustive, but they are concrete steps we can take right now.
Reflecting on SDG progress, UN Secretary-General António Guterres has said “the task before us is immense”.
He’s right. But when everyone has internet access and the tools and skills to participate fully in a digital world, this task will be within reach.