New technologies and global goals
Information and telecommunications technologies (ICT) touch virtually every aspect of our life. A decade ago, in some parts of the planet, access to them was considered a luxury. Today, it is widely recognized that to drive progress, in particular the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), it is necessary that they be accessible to all and at an affordable cost.
The rise of this digitalization naturally gives rise to various hypotheses and theories, to hopes and even to frustrations. The successes and failures of ICT-induced transformations have shown that technologies themselves are neither positive, negative, nor necessarily neutral. Rather, new technologies show that political, civic, economic and social empowerment are the building blocks of global goals and the goals of local hopes for prosperity.
ICTs are evolving at breakneck speed, but access to the Internet, especially through the web, is essential to harness the potential of new technologies. The SDGs have rightly recognized the vital role they can play in achieving them. Target C of SDG 9, in particular, emphasizes universal access to ICTs, in particular for the least developed countries, by 2020, that is to say very soon. Half of the population is expected to have internet access in 2019 (initially in 2017) 1 . Of the approximately 3.9 billion people who are not connected, an overwhelming majority reside in the Global South and 2 billion are women. Nine out of ten young people who do
According to the Alliance for a Accessible Internet, at the current rate of progress towards target C of SDG 9, only 16% of the poorest countries in the world and 53% of countries will be connected by here to 2020 3 . It also notes that this delay “jeopardizes global development, contributing to lost economic growth opportunities and depriving hundreds of millions of people from access to education, e-health services and political representation, and much more 4 ”.
Mobile phones are widely regarded as the entry point into the digital economy and “one of the most far-reaching technologies in history … While mobile connectivity is spreading quickly, its spread is uneven”, notes the GSMA, an association representing the interests of mobile operators around the world 5 . Disparities in access to and use of mobile telephony reflect inequalities between urban and rural areas, gender and geographic regions.
To illustrate this fact, the GSMA notes that “in rural areas, the deployment and operation of mobile infrastructure can cost twice as much as in urban areas, with income possibilities ten times lower ” 6 . This would discourage telecom service providers from prioritizing these areas, which also lack other infrastructure and lag behind in their development.
In its latest digital gender divide assessment, the GSMA found that “women in low- and middle-income countries are, on average, ten times less likely to own a mobile phone than men, which is some 184 million fewer women than men own one. Even among women who own one, there is a significant gap in its use, especially for processing services, such as internet access. Over 1.2 billion women living in low- and middle-income countries do not have access to the Internet. They are, on average, 26% less likely to use this technology than men. Even among cell phone users, women are 18% less likely to7 . “According to studies conducted by the World Wide Web Foundation, in poor communities in nine cities in Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America, almost all women and all men have a mobile phone 8 . But when income, education and age are taken into account, women are almost 50% less likely than men to have Internet access in these same communities, with only 37% of women interviewed who said they had access to it. Once connected, women are between 30 and 50 times less likely than men to use the Internet to increase their income or participate in public life 9 .
The geographical location of a country has an influence on the cost of connection. In landlocked countries and island nations, the costs are generally higher. Small countries (low population or small area) “have the least opportunity to achieve economies of scale”, while “the costs incurred by industry for the provision of Internet services show that the cost of providing mobile broadband data to a subscriber for a year in an island country like the Philippines is almost five times that of a coastal country like Nigeria 10 ”.
Studies have also indicated that the cost of devices and the cost of connecting to the Internet are the major obstacles to connection 11 . Unfortunately, the measures recommended by different actors have not provided sufficient political impetus to remove this obstacle. The price of mobile devices is often too high for many low-income communities, even as costs are falling and smartphone adoption increases. In addition, these communities spend a much higher share of their income on basic broadband connection than those with incomes within the national average 12 .
Other factors also play into the fact that many people, especially women, do not have access to the Internet. According to studies by Women’s Right Online (2015), many women in poor urban communities without Internet access reported “not knowing how” to use the Internet as a barrier 13 . Studies by the GSMA have also shown that the lack of digital literacy (not only knowing how to use a cell phone and accessing the Internet from a mobile device) and the lack of skills (difficulties in reading and writing) were more often seen as a barrier by women rather than men 14 .
Lack of time and relevance of content (limited existence of online content in local languages) was also cited as obstacles in particular preventing women from going online and staying connected 15 . Online spaces, especially social media, which are important drivers of internet use in Africa, Asia and Latin America 16, are less and less secure. Not only does this cause users not to log in, it erodes their trust in the Internet and new technologies. While promising to be “public spaces” of opportunity and ideas, social media platforms are increasingly toxic, insecure spaces, from which many are starting to shy away. Again, women pay the heaviest price.
To achieve the SDGs and get technology to participate in this effort, radical action is needed. The digital divide is a manifestation of the deep inequalities that exist in our societies and the failure of policies. At the global level, there is insufficient policy-making to address and implement the challenges mentioned above.
As the talk about the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the impact of new technologies sparks growing interest in policy, innovation and investment, the digital divide is likely to widen. If half of the world’s population still does not have access to what can be called “key technologies”, as mentioned above, how can they benefit from new technologies? It is imperative that debates about affordable universal access to the Internet and devices remain at the heart of business, even as attention is focused on new technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), Internet of things, robotics and the blockchain.
In enabling new technologies to be created and existing ones to be improved, innovation is a positive element that contributes to the achievement of the global goals. The spaces created to promote and develop innovation must be the object of the same political force, in particular in the field of application.
There is an urgent need to assess the ideas that fuel the discourse on innovation. Technological solutionism, the popular belief that every problem has a technology-based solution, needs to be investigated further. The fact that women, minority groups and countries of the South have little influence on technological innovation that is supposed to address the problems they face should be sobering. We need to take more nuanced approaches to correlate innovation with the use of new technologies, including empowering people to be both creators and beneficiaries.
New technologies will not solve the problems we already face. For example, the deployment of AI and the priority given to it – by social media platforms in moderating content 17 – instead of resorting to human moderators – already lead to violations of human rights. ‘man 18 . In their conception, many technologies already convey prejudices that it is practically impossible to take into account, and yet they are presented as solutions to these challenges.
While we need innovative ideas to achieve the global goals, the essential role of policies in the use of technology must be reminded in debates. They cannot replace the lack of political will in the fight against poverty or prevent discriminatory social norms. Policies are as important as innovation, as enabling environments will ensure the success of efforts to achieve global goals, including those related to technology. Effective policy implementation identifies the investment mechanisms used by states and private actors to achieve policy goals. This is applies to policies concerning technologies as well as those concerning equitable social and economic development. There are no ready-made solutions when it comes to political reform. The challenges must be taken into account depending on the context in order to drive inclusive and sustainable development through new and existing technologies.
One would hope that ICTs would have reduced a number of challenges, but these realities are a reminder that technologies, by themselves, cannot solve the inequalities and the previous problems, even if we hoped they would. In addition, in their development and deployment, ICTs can also create new disparities. The current digital divide is also, in large part, a gender and income gap, making it a development challenge rather than just a technical one.
In bringing the United Nations Secretary-General’s New Technologies Strategy to fruition, certain considerations will, I hope, guide its implementation. One of the important steps is the creation of the High Level Group on Digital Cooperation, of which I am a member. In our work, we will examine in detail the interplay between values and principles, methods and modalities, as well as areas of action that highlight what works. We will also reflect on what went wrong and determine what needs to be done to maximize the potential of technologies while mitigating the risks and harm caused.
I am convinced that we have many building blocks – from SDGs to innovations to policy recommendations – to leave no one behind in this digital age. What we need is a human (political) motivation to promote the SDG mantra at local, regional and global levels. How to unlock this potential remains the biggest techno-political challenge.