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World Bank report on the state of the Internet: "Not bad, but could do better"

internetfor all

via Flickr © workshop.segou (CC BY 2.0)

  • Digital dividends' such as jobs, services and overall economic growth lagging behind the spread of Internet availability.
  • Digital Divide may be narrower than it used to be, but it is still there and it is still deep.Favourable business climate, strong human capital and good governance are the three pillars of economic development.
  • But 20 per cent of the global population remains illiterate.

In a new report published yesterday, the World Bank, whilst acknowledging the huge and primarily beneficial effects the Internet is having around the planet, concludes that, for a significant percentage of the earth's population, Internet connectivity has not yet improved either the economic opportunities or access to the most basic public services in the ways it was meant to and as was expected. Indeed, in some parts of the world, it has even widened inequalities and caused the loss of millions of jobs, many of which were classified as 'middle class'.

In a press release announcing the publication of the report, the World Bank writes, “Digital technologies are spreading rapidly, but digital dividends — growth, jobs and services — have lagged behind.”

The net result is that the 'haves'- the already educated and economically empowered - have been able to take rapid advantage of the opportunities that the Internet can facilitate and provide, but millions of people around the globe in developing and underdeveloped countries and regions have as yet been unable to fully to exploit the benefits available to others elsewhere, and, as the report is at pains to emphasise, even today 60 per cent of of the global population still has no access to the most basic of Internet services.

The "World Bank Development Report, 2016: Digital Dividends" says, "Digital technologies have spread rapidly in much of the world. Digital dividends — that is, the broader development benefits from using these technologies—have lagged behind. In many instances, digital technologies have boosted growth, expanded opportunities and improved service delivery. Yet their aggregate impact has fallen short and is unevenly distributed."

It continues, "For digital technologies to benefit everyone, everywhere requires closing the remaining digital divide, especially in Internet access. But greater digital adoption will not be enough. To get the most out of the digital revolution, countries also need to work on the “analog complements” — by strengthening regulations that ensure competition among businesses, by adapting workers’ skills to the demands of the new economy, and by ensuring that institutions are accountable." Laudable aims indeed, but achieving them will take time, determination and levels international co-operation at the highest levels and that has been conspicuous by its absence through much of human history.

But it is not all bad or cautionary news, much of it is very good indeed. The world is in the midst of the the greatest information and communications revolution in human history. Some 40 per cent of the global population now does have regular access to the Internet, with more and more new users coming online every day. What's more, in the poorest 20 percent of households, 7 out of 10 now have a mobile phone and even the most disadvantaged are more likely to have access to mobile phones than to lavatories or clean water.

It cannot be denied that telecoms is making the world more prosperous and inclusive but, as the report also finds, "traditional development challenges are preventing the digital revolution from fulfilling its transformative potential."

However, there is a caveat. As the World bank points out, “Countries that are investing in both digital technology and its analog complements will reap significant dividends, while others are likely to fall behind. Technology without a strong foundation risks creating divergent economic fortunes, higher inequality and an intrusive state.”

Levels of access to the Internet and content are contingent on the societal norms of different nations

The underlying argument here is that the ways in which a given society approaches and utilises broadband, IT and telecoms is contingent on what kind of a society it is. Thus, in many culturally conservative, patriarchal societies - and several arab countries come immediately to mind here - women are not only discouraged from going online but are often physically prevented from attempting to do so. Meanwhile, across South Asia, fewer women either own or have access to mobile handsets than in other parts of the world. The World Bank reports makes it plain that although more than half of all countries now have privacy laws, a mere 51 of them are in the developing world.

And then of course there is the continuing problem of illiteracy. It may be hard to believe this more than halfway through the second decade of the 21st century but some 20 per cent of the people on the planet are illiterate and this, obviously, has the most detrimental effects on their life chances and employment prospects - and of course, they are unable to use the Internet even if it is available to them.

The World Bank (which, it claims, has itself spent upwards of US$12.6 billion on IT projects around the globe) ends its 2106 report with a clarion call to all nations to make the Internet “universal, affordable, open and safe.”

However, and simultaneously, it adds that the mere provision of more Internet access will not , in itself, be enough to ensure that humanity will be able properly to benefit from that access. Thus the World bank is calling for companies and enterprises to be equipped with tools that will enable them to compete in the global economy and to improve the skills of workers. It adds that governments and their institutions must be made more transparent and accountable. That'll be the day.

The report concludes, “The triple complements — a favourable business climate, strong human capital and good governance — will sound familiar — and they should because they are the foundation of economic development.”

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