This is the second part of “doing development in a digital world“ blog series. You can read the first part here.
The Internet has had profound impact on our lives – from accessing information to communication with each other to civic participation. But for many people, access to the Internet is still a privilege, not a right. In this post, I would argue why universal access to the Internet should be a priority for Practical Action.
The progress to achieve the global goal of “universal and affordable access to the Internet in least developed countries by 2020” has been slow. ITU estimates that 3.9 billion people don’t have access to Internet, majority of them live in Global South. As an example, let’s take the countries where Practical Action operates (see Chart 1). Only Kenya and Peru have “significant” number of internet users – slightly over 40% of population. The lowest is Bangladesh at 14.4%.
If we apply the gender lens, the proportion of women using the internet is 12% lower than men. In Africa, this gap is widens to 25%. Despite the popularity of mobile internet, South Asian women are 26% less likely to own a phone than men and 70% less likely to use mobile internet.
At current pace, it will take another 20 years to connect the world.
Access to the Internet is closely associated with human rights: right to freedom of expression, privacy and freedom of association. The United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution in 2016: “[the] rights that people have offline must also be protected online”. Nevertheless, digital rights are systematically undermined.
We witnessed how governments and tech companies abuses their power to exert greater control over the Internet and markets. Authorities in Zimbabwe shutted down WhatsApp during anti government protests in 2016. Early this month, Bangladeshi authorities blocked a popular news portal “the Daily Star” for more than 18 hours without explanation. The Facebook data harvesting scandal and the accusation in conducting mass surveillance were another blow to the internet freedom.
What makes me optimistic is that citizens and organisations around the world actively involved in access to the Internet debates. Around 80 organisations have joined Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) to “overcoming the affordability barrier to access for women, the poor, rural dwellers, and other marginalised populations”. India’s citizens fought and won the case for the net neutrality protection. Last year, India’s Supreme Court asserted the right to privacy protection.
As highlighted by 619 senior development professionals participated in Catholic Relief Services’ ICT international survey, connectivity, i.e. access to the Internet, will have more positive impact than other technologies (see Chart 2). On the condition, of course, that people can access and use Internet in a meaningful way. What the experience has taught us, we can’t completely rely to governments and big tech companies to work on these issues, however good are their intentions. Citizens, CSOs and NGOs should participate and build alliances for making universal access to the Internet reality as well as for the protection of digital rights.
I believe Practical Action is in the position to support these efforts. After all, people need reliable, affordable and secure Internet connection to access services that are provided by Practical Action. Practical Action could build upon its experience providing internet access to rural communities in Bolivia under the Willay Program 2007-2014. This wouldn’t be easy but feasible. As argued in my previous post, it would require commitment, time and investments.