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A view on digital divide and economic development

Published on 14 July 2020
Updated on 05 April 2024

When considering the great technological changes that humanity is facing, it is generally assumed that the Fourth Industrial Revolution (underway since the middle of the last century, and characterised by a fusion of technologies that blur the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres) will be the fundamental trigger for a new welfare stage based on prosperity and inclusion.

Indeed, humanity is undergoing the largest information and communications revolution in human history.

  1. In 2019, almost 60% of the world population had access to the Internet (2020 Global Digital Report).
  2. The daily average of online Internet users is 6.4 hours, while their average use of social networks is 2.2 hours (2020 GDR).  
  3. There are more cell phones than people in the world. (According to the World Bank, among the poorest 20% of households, nearly 7 out of 10 have a mobile phones.)
  4. Many African households are more likely to have access to mobile phones than to basic services such as water and electricity (The Economist and Quartz Africa).

However, sceptical voices have also come to argue that more technology and connectivity is not necessarily equivalent to more development and well-being (see Digital Watch Observatory’s development basket and the online databases of International Development Statistics (IDS))

For the relation between technology and development to be a virtuous one, a fundamental synergy needs to occur between access, use, and the appropriation of technology.

In many developing countries, this synergy is not verified, especially in the context of information and communication technologies (ICTs) as they continue to lack ICT infrastructure, capacities for protection and cybersecurity, and multilingual access to ICTs.

Hence, even though ICTs provide opportunities for economic growth and social development, they have the potential to exclude those who cannot access or benefit from them. This can further lead to a digital divide (considered ‘the new inequality’ of the twenty-first century) as it implies the marginalisation of large groups of the population in regard the access, use, and appropriation of technology.

While organisations such as the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the Economic Commission for Latin America (CEPAL), and the United Nations (UN) have devised their own definitions of the digital divide, the most generic one is that of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), defined as ‘the gap between individuals, households, businesses, and geographic areas at different socio-economic levels with respect to their opportunities to access information and communication technologies (ICT) and the use of the Internet for a wide variety of activities’.

A closer analysis of the digital divide confirms that it is not an independent phenomenon, but a variable that reflects socio-economic inequalities in areas such as education, health, housing, employment, and access to clean water and food, to mention the most important. This segmentation is an outcome of the digital division both within and between countries, between the rural and urban population, between adults and young people, between men and women, and between those with no formal education and those with a degree of formal education.

In any case, the fundamental thing when considering the digital divide is that it is structured around the three above-mentioned dimensions:

  1. access – the gap between those who can access the telecommunications infrastructure and those who are isolated from it;
  2. use – the gap between those who use ICTs and those who do not (e.g. lack of access, interest, or training); and
  3. appropriation – the gap between those who can use ICTs on an advanced level and those who use them on a basic level. (It has been reiterated that access determines on what level people will learn to use the tools, which in turn affects the benefits they can gain from them.)

From a different perspective, ICTs imply the integration of digital technologies in various economic and social sectors of each country, not as an end in itself, but as instruments to increase levels of development. This interpretation goes back to the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the impact they had on the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) (Geneva in 2003 and Tunisia in 2005) and the first UN General Assembly resolution in 2002 which highlighted the roles that the transfer of technology between countries and the promotion of access, use, and appropriation within countries, can have on the development processes.

More recently, the Internet has been directly mentioned in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), in particular SDG 9c, which states, ‘to significantly increase access to ICTs and provide universal and affordable access to the Internet in least developed countries by 2020’.

The issue of development is also present in the agenda of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), when during the 14th IGF Annual Meeting in 2019, members analysed the role of the Internet and digital technologies in achieving the SDGs. The discussion focused on SDG 9 (industry, innovation, and infrastructure), SDG 10 (reduction of inequalities), and SDG 17 (global associations), again highlighting the various dimensions of development related to ICTs.

The notion of a direct cause-and-effect relationship between technology and development is no longer being sustained by the main actors of development. It is beyond doubt that digital technologies provide benefits to individuals, businesses, as well as governments.

However, benefits do not spread evenly throughout the global population, but are highly uneven and asymmetrical, which compromises the potential of ICTs to promote economic growth, prosperity, and the inclusion of whole populations.

For this relation between technology and development to be reinforced, it is necessary to permanently consolidate the fundamental aspects underlying the current digital divide (the use, access, and appropriation of technology). This would further stimulate the strengthening of the main dimensions of human development, i.e., education, health, and income, which in practical terms refer to the people’s well-being, economic equality, knowledge, and quality of life.


Mr Guillermo Gutiérrez Nieto is Counsellor for Public Governance, Investment, Regulation and Competition Policies at the Mexican Delegation to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) since 2018. He is an internationalist and a doctor of public administration and has since 1992 been a member of the Mexican Foreign Service.

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