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Monday, 06 July 2020

Bridging the digital divides

Could the coronavirus pandemic help to bridge the world’s digital divides, asks Magda Shaheen

Magda Shaheen , Saturday 2 May 2020
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Amidst the Covid-19 calamity and all the challenges it has brought worldwide, one should not hesitate to see glimmers of hope and accentuate what could be positive signs, allowing us to navigate smoothly and with resilience through the crisis as a result of the rapid uptake of digital technologies. 

No doubt the fast application of digitisation has soothed the effects of the coronavirus on our daily lives, and it has also allowed continuing education for our children, working from home for many companies, virtual meetings at the highest political levels and online shopping, among other benefits. If life has not stopped with the lockdowns that have been put in place in many countries across the world, much can be attributed to what the crisis itself has helped to unfold, namely the unprecedented absorption of digital skills and the day-to-day operationalising of digital economies. 

In a world where advanced technology can help people to adapt to crises, the question arises of the significant digital divides that still exist both within and between countries, particularly on the African continent. Paralysis has stricken large parts of the world in the current crisis that have difficulty coping with advanced technologies and do not have the tools to fully engage in the digital economy. Full-scale global solidarity is vital to deal with the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic that may persist for months to come. 

Big tech companies have flourished since the outbreak of the pandemic. According to a New York Times article on 23 March, e-commerce companies such as Amazon have had to hire an additional 100,000 warehouse workers to meet surging demand. The number of people using Microsoft for online collaboration has risen by nearly 40 per cent in one week, and at least 900 million meetings and calls are performed on a daily basis. 

Voice calls over Facebook and WhatsApp have doubled in volume. Netflix and YouTube have rendered movie theatres quasi obsolete and not in the least bit missed during the spread of the coronavirus. Amazon, Microsoft and Google, the three major cloud-computing platforms, are now swimming in cash and are offering deep discounts for renting their infrastructure. 

Even the deeply entrenched advocacy of data protection and stringent conditions for security, originally strongly stipulated by the EU and developing countries alike to undercut the intrusion of the big US tech companies, are being reconsidered by regulators in view of the need for transparency and the sharing of information to protect public health. 

The coronavirus is forcing a trade-off between privacy and public health. Rigorous restrictions, considered earlier, would put at risk the progress of scientists to work together to look for a cure for Covid-19 and to develop vaccines against this deadly disease. However controversial it may be, public health in these dire times supersedes data privacy, which will have to take a backseat. This does not mean that we will have to lose sight of privacy and data protection in the future, but such concepts need to be put into perspective during the present crisis. 

The outbreak of the pandemic has thus emphasised the spread and swift application of digital technologies, but it has also brought to the surface the enormous divides that exist between and within countries. The developing countries, and particularly the Least Developed Countries (LDCs), are underprivileged in their digital usage, and only the higher echelons of their societies tend to benefit from such advanced technology. 

Statistics produced by the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) show that only one in five people in the LDCs use the Internet and in most developing countries well below five per cent of the population engages in online shopping. Moreover, the insufficient quality of broadband services hampers the ability to use teleconferencing tools and to connect worldwide.

This is even more of a reason for Africa to exert additional efforts to engage fully in the digital economy and to develop suitable technologies to integrate further into the world economy. The lagging behind of Africa in its digital readiness has caused much damage, compelling the African countries to stop their meetings and thus undermining the much-praised progress of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) and delaying its implementation by at least another year to the distress of its sponsors, the African leaders themselves.

The pandemic should cause the African countries seriously to consider digitising their economies as a priority and to look into expediting the establishment of their own platforms. Such platforms would be multi-purpose, and they would undoubtedly create a greater interest in e-commerce, allow Africa to have its own continental cloud, thus ensuring greater security and privacy, and help activate the micro, small and medium-sized enterprises that are widespread in African economies. They would also increase the quality and affordability of broadband connectivity in Africa, making the Internet a standard device for the people of the continent and boosting its usage by producers and consumers alike to promote inter-African trade. 

Our countries should engage more in building their own regional and continental clouds that should serve the African continent in its entirety. Such a solution has been advanced by the African Union (AU) through the African Electronic Trade Group (A e-Trade), a group of African individuals from the diaspora and from various disciplines that aims to be a part of the grassroots transformation of the continent and that stands ready to finance the project. 

A public-private partnership agreement whose ultimate objective would be to strengthen the effective implementation of the AfCFTA would boost inter-African trade through the digitisation of the economy and counter the security implications of the evolving use of digital tools beyond the continent. Such an initiative is praiseworthy. It is essential to empower African governments with the digital technology and digital tools they need to help create e-government programmes that promote sustainable development and ultimately boost inter-African trade in an accelerated manner.

Though the Covid-19 has drawn the attention of the international community towards the haves and have-nots of digital technology, it can also be a stimulus for the effective globalisation of digitisation. It has made clear that the digitisation of our economies is no longer a luxury to indulge in, but a necessity for citizens in everyday life. 

There can be no backtracking or halting of the growing digitisation that seems to be even faster than the spread of the coronavirus itself. Much more attention should be paid to bridging existing and emerging digital divides in order to allow more countries and more people to take advantage of digitisation. No government, no citizen, can feel complacent about being bypassed, and no country or continent can remain on the margins of digitisation. 

*The writer is former assistant foreign minister for international economic affairs.

*A version of this article appears in print in the  30 April, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly 

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