Universal Digital InclusionThe Internet is an essential part of everyday life in the 21st century. From buying clothes to being interviewed for a job, countless traditionally face-to-face interactions have moved online, a process accelerated by the era of COVID-19 restrictions. The World Bank, a financial institution that provides transformative loans and grants to low and middle-income economies, terms this trend a “Global Digital Development revolution”. This revolution is far from complete as 2.7 billion of the world’s population live in digital darkness with no access to the Internet. Without digital connectivity, billions are excluded from possible educational, professional and social opportunities, while SMEs suffer a competitive disadvantage. As the World Bank develops its technology solutions, it retains internet access and connectivity as a priority. Here’s what the institution is doing to address the world’s digital divide and bring about universal digital inclusion:

The Digital Development Global Practice

The mission of the World Bank is to help the governments of poorer nations bring their citizens out of poverty. The World Bank’s Digital Development Global Practice was set up to provide governments with finance and knowledge to help improve citizens’ access to digital technologies, enabling them to participate in the digital economy.

In 2021, the World Bank established the Korea Digital Development Program (KoDi) to help developing economies accelerate their digital transformation. The program utilizes Korean technology and best practices to develop a technical knowledge base for the future. This knowledge base will provide nation-specific guides on how to make vital improvements to cybersecurity infrastructure and case studies on data-based economies and ‘greening’ the technology sector.

Strengthening Connectivity in Africa

The Digital Economy for Africa (DE4A) is a key World Bank initiative that supports the African Union’s Digital Transformation Strategy (2020 to 2030). The DE4A aims to achieve universal digital inclusion in Africa by 2030. As part of the initiative, the World Bank has conducted digital economy diagnostics for nearly 40 African countries to assess their present weaknesses and map possible opportunities for growth.

Experts measure digital connectivity by internet access through mobile phones. But high costs and limited broadband keep 4G or equivalent mobile internet out of reach for two-thirds of Africans. By 2030, projections show 90% of mobile subscriptions in North America will have 5G, compared with 10% in sub-Saharan Africa.

World Bank and Digital Economy for Africa

Through the DE4A, the World Bank is investing heavily in Africa’s digital connectivity. Already in Togo in West Africa, investments by the World Bank have helped internet penetration increase to 75% from 5% around a decade ago. The DE4A initiative has also pledged significant financial aid to similar regional projects that will develop digital markets across East and West Africa.

World Bank funding has also benefited Rwanda, an East African nation leading the way in digital inclusion initiatives in Africa. As well as providing 250,000 households with financing for smartphones and other devices, the World Bank has contributed to the training of 3 million Rwandans in basic digital literacy, focussing particularly on women and girls. Meanwhile, in Madagascar, where access to electricity and digital connectivity is among the lowest in sub-Saharan Africa and the world, a World Bank-funded project is pioneering models of joint digital and off-grid energy provision in rural areas.

Spreading Knowledge and Infrastructure in Latin America

The World Bank also runs a comparable digital inclusion initiative to the DE4A in Latin America. The Digital Economy for Latin America and the Caribbean (DE4LAC) initiative assists governments across the region. The most notable recent work by the DE4LAC has been the one that focuses on strengthening data infrastructure in Argentina. Last year, through this project the World Bank approved a $200 million loan to the Argentinian government to improve digital infrastructure and the uptake of digital tools and technologies. The project aims to benefit 350,000 residents, especially women, across Argentina’s most neglected rural areas.

The DE4LAC is also working across the Caribbean. An ongoing expansion initiative of the region’s 3G networks is providing high-quality internet to more than 95% of the populations of Grenada, St. Lucia and St. Vincent and the Grenadines. This expansion of the 3G network will improve links to markets and access to key services.

In addition to direct funding, the DE4LAC also provides national diagnostics and actionable policy recommendations to help governments in Latin America achieve digital inclusion. In 2022, the World Bank provided El Salvador with a diagnostic to help the country come closer to achieving its vision for digital inclusion set out in the National Digital Agenda 2020-2030. Similar efforts are in the works for Ecuador, Colombia and Jamaica.

Looking Ahead

According to a prediction by the International Telecommunication Union, an additional $428 billion investment needs to go into high-speed broadband development over the next ten years to achieve universal digital inclusion. Ongoing work by the World Bank, particularly in Africa and Latin America, is helping to meet this challenge. By supplying finance as well as diagnostic reports and a knowledge base to the world’s poorest countries, the World Bank is helping to ensure that all will be able to participate in the ongoing “Digital Development revolution”.

Samuel Chambers
Photo: Wikimedia