Internet and Development: A Reality-Check
Updated on 07 August 2022
By Constance Bommelaer de Leusse and Tereza Horejsova
How can we create a more inclusive Internet? What are the practical steps we can take to expand global connectivity? Last week, leaders from some of the Internet’s main organisations and businesses, together with the World Bank, are gathering in Washington D.C. to discuss these questions. Why? Because bringing people online is one of the most powerful tools for development, and the world has finally woken up to see it.
Last year, the international community took on a historical commitment through the adoption of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The Internet is now seen to have a central role in reaching them all, from alleviating poverty to empowering women and youth on all continents. We are already seeing ambitious projects and increasing amounts of funding becoming available, and the link between development and the Internet has been officially acknowledged by a number of prominent policy bodies. As an example, only last month the UN Broadband Commission members said that sustainable development goals couldn’t be achieved without affordable and universal access to ICTs and broadband connectivity.
Ambitions to catalyze Internet-based Development are finally coming into place but the important question remains: how do we move from speech to action, and from action to success?
A challenging possibility
It is generally assumed that the Internet boosts development, especially in countries like China, India or Brazil, and it is estimated that ICT capital is already contributing on average 15% to the GDP growth in the developing world. However, although evidence of the Internet’s inherent power is growing, the assumption of the Internet being an engine for development does not apply automatically.
The first warning came with the World Bank report arguing that ‘digital dividends’ are not reaching all of the corners and social strata in the developing world. Hence, overcoming some of the infrastructure challenges will not automatically go hand in hand with development. The Internet is in essence an ecosystem, where good decisions on infrastructure need to be backed by empowered users and good policy frameworks.
Development is also too complex to be reduced only to access to the Internet. Connecting rural villages and communities is a necessary first step, but it is actually not decisive for making the Internet’s impact on society. Much more needs to be done. People need to be trained, they need to trust the Internet and they need to find it relevant. What is digital has to fit into local social and cultural realities, including legislation that enhances users trust in the use of the Internet.
Inclusion is the key
Because Internet inclusion is more than fiber and connecting devices – It’s about ensuring that no one is left behind. Let us take a few concrete examples:
Knowing how to use the Internet and getting used to the online dynamics is a process of confidence and changing habits: A villager in Kenya can benefit from digitally transmitted tools on, let us say, long-term weather forecast helping him or her to make good farming decisions. But taking the initial decision to invest in a mobile-enabled phone can be a concern to start with.
The Internet will not solve the day-to-day business challenges with a magic wand, but is dependent on a wider environment that supports the transition: A small entrepreneur in Myanmar can effectively use online presence to boost his business and make profit quicker and easier but he will still have a barrier in using the Internet as productively as entrepreneurs in the advanced economies due to for e.g. the availability of payment systems.
To freely explore and participate in the online world should not be considered an added bonus, but as the fundamental right that it is, and as intrinsic part to an Internet of opportunities: An activist in an authoritarian country has a tool that – as history has shown – can bring real societal changes. But with censorship and restricted Internet access in some countries, the opportunity for the Internet to be a tool for social empowerment will not be the same opportunity that the luckier of us takes for granted.
The Internet can make a real impact if we address this gap between possibilities and realities in an open, collaborative and constructive way, and at all levels of governance – whether local, regional or global. Because if we want the villager to connect it requires work among all stakeholders to support education and capacity building. If we want the entrepreneur to succeed we must work together to ensure that ‘new kids on the block’ have as equal opportunity to innovate as Google and Facebook have had. And if we want empowered users we must ensure a trusted Internet that respects privacy and protects our rights.
All of the Internet’s stakeholders – businesses, civil society, governments, and the technical community – hold a piece of the puzzle. To make Internet-based Development a reality, we invite them to unite forces and focus on the immediate next steps that need to be taken:
• Expanding infrastructure: Private sector needs to invest for the infrastructure to provide Internet access and to create and host services, leaving to governments to prioritize areas with high costs or low demand.
• Fostering skills and entrepreneurship: A skilled technical community is necessary to deploy and operate access and content infrastructure. It is also necessary to develop human capacity so that there are entrepreneurs, developers and others to create content and services and the innovative new business and delivery models built on them.
• Developing a supportive governance system: Good governance is needed to set the principles and rules of an enabling environment for a local Internet ecosystem, and specific policies to promote infrastructure investment and human capacity. Governments can also deploy their own content and services and encourage people to make the most of the Internet
Discussions held in Washington D.C. last week, addressed many of these issues. And the mixed types of participants of the event already give a good hope for taking on the challenge in its entirety and complexity. Because promoting an Internet that supports the SDGs is not only technical, it is not only policy, and it is not only developmental. It is all of the above.
• Event: Internet Inclusion: Global Connect Stakeholders Advancing Solutions
• SDGs and the Internet
• ISOC Policy Framework for an Enabling Environment