Digital Divide in Developing Countries: Why We Need to Close the Gap

The digital divide represents the gap between individuals who have easy access to resources like computers and the internet and those who do not. Without access to the internet and related digital technology, people are at a disadvantage socially and economically. They cannot participate as easily in society or invest as easily in their education and skills.

Leaders around the world should work together to close the digital divide in developing countries in particular. Without dedicated efforts, the lack of funding and underlying infrastructure in developing countries will cause individuals who are already behind to fall further behind in the digital age.

Causes of the Digital Divide in Developing Countries

People often assume that the main cause of the digital divide is inequality in access to the internet. While affordable internet is an important resource for individuals to participate in digital development, there are multiple factors that cause the digital divide. For example, all the following issues can inhibit digital inclusion in society:

  • Lack of access to the internet, including not having sufficient bandwidth for tasks like video and audio conferencing
  • Lack of education and digital literacy training to use technology effectively
  • Inadequate infrastructure, including not having reliable electricity
  • Lack of access to technology, such as computers and other devices
  • Lack of safe storage locations for devices

Countries are classified into one of three categories: developed economies, economies in transition, and developing economies. A developing country has a low- or middle-income economy. Because developing countries do not have as significant a wealth or tax base as developed countries, there is typically poor electrical infrastructure and unreliable internet access. The layers of supporting infrastructure aren’t readily available to society, which leads to a widening digital divide.

Countries with the Greatest Digital Divide

The list of countries that are the most impacted by the digital divide changes over time. Initiatives like a technology roadmap work to close the gap in some countries. Other countries could get added to the list as expectations change for what constitutes essential technology.

In a 2021 report, the United Nations identified forty-six of the least developed countries and the issues these countries face with digital connectivity. For example, in South Sudan in Sub-Saharan Africa, only 7 percent of the population has access to electricity. Similarly, only 8 percent of the population of Chad has access to electricity. These kinds of limitations in infrastructure and digital access cause countries to fall further behind in digital equity and can be a significant factor in slowing the development of modern human rights.

Effects of the Digital Divide

There are three primary effects of the digital divide in developing countries, which fall into the following categories:

  • Lower quality of life
  • Less successful economy
  • Lack of education

Let’s take a closer look at how these consequences of the digital divide affect developing countries.

How the Digital Divide Affects Developing Countries

The digital divide impacts much of life in developing countries by both limiting access to modern technology as well as keeping these countries from advancing further.

Impact on Quality of Life

In both developing countries and developed countries, the digital divide creates a wider gap between classes in society. Because more than eight out of ten middle-skill jobs require digital skills, individuals without access to digital technology aren’t able to attain those jobs. Middle-skill jobs that don’t require digital skills and low-skill jobs typically have lower pay than middle-skill jobs that do require digital skills. As a result families can get stuck in a pattern of lower income work, less education, and a lower quality of life that is difficult to overcome.

Impact on the Economy

Historically, industrial revolutions have contributed to advancing societies past previous patterns of life:

  • The first industrial revolution, in the eighteenth century, used water and steam power to mechanize manufacturing processes, allowing for easier and faster labor.
  • The second industrial revolution, in the late nineteenth century, used electricity to support factories and mass production.
  • The third industrial revolution, in the twentieth century, used computers and technology for further automation of production.
  • The fourth industrial revolution is ongoing and aims to use artificial intelligence (AI) along with robotics and other sophisticated technology to advance production further.

Each of these industrial revolutions contributed to significant advancement in societies that embraced new technologies and ways of life. For example, South Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world prior to the third industrial revolution. According to an article by Michael J. Seth, in the 1950s, most international observers anticipated a grim economic future for South Korea. By investing in technology and education during the third industrial revolution, South Korea has been able to change the trajectory of its economy. It now has a higher gross domestic product per capita than many countries in the European Union.

However, countries that are not able to close the digital divide are at a disadvantage in the digital economy. They can’t contribute as fully in trade, and education often lags behind. Without this kind of foundation in society, emerging economies suffer and there is a limit to citizens’ ability to advance. In the fourth industrial revolution, the AI digital divide is widening particularly quickly. Advancements are happening faster than ever before, and some countries don’t have the basic computer and technology skills developed in the third industrial revolution yet.

Impact on Education

The digital divide prevents students from getting the same level of education as students with greater access to technology. Students that don’t have a computer at home, for example, were at a disadvantage during the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced many schools to move to virtual learning. These disadvantages compound as a lack of adequate education prevents young students from gaining the skills required to earn jobs with advancement opportunities. To solve these inequalities, policymakers need to consider 5G questions around making technology like 5G available equitably around the world.

Obstacles for Developing Countries to Overcoming the Global Digital Divide

While there are obstacles that developing countries face in overcoming the digital divide, it is possible to address them. Let’s explore the most common obstacles before discussing how to overcome them.

Political Obstacles

The decisions of rulers in power have a significant impact on the resources available to the general public. In authoritarian and totalitarian governments, political leaders can limit free access to the internet and control the dissemination of information. For example, to limit the influence of Western culture, the government of Iran prohibits high-speed internet usage within the country.

Technological Obstacles

Physical access to technology like computers and networks can be a major limiting factor, especially in rural areas. The cost of devices, the state of existing infrastructure, and other obstacles can all contribute to making it more difficult to get technology to developing countries.

Educational Obstacles

Digital skills build on other skills. Without basic literacy, individuals can’t be expected to learn how to use a computer. Developing countries need to address existing educational disadvantages before they can make progress in closing the digital divide.

How to Overcome These Obstacles

Government programs have made some progress in the last several years in closing the digital divide in particular areas. The European Union’s Digital Agenda for Europe program, for example, set goals for increasing access to the internet. South Korea’s government programs have changed the course for the country, making them a world leader in internet usage, according to Pew Research Center.

However, much room remains for expansion. Many programs so far have focused solely on internet access and computer usage. Developed countries can help to expand the scope of these programs and address the underlying causes of the digital divide to have a more widespread impact.

Organizations like the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) can also have an impact by encouraging the development of science, technology, and communication systems around the globe. These organizations promote engagement with new technology and influence public policy and education in a way that can impact the trajectory of digital growth in developing countries.

The overall digital divide and the numerous obstacles that developing countries face can feel intimidating. However, citizens and policymakers can start small, setting a sustainable development goal and incremental milestones to make progress over time.

Addressing the digital divide in Eurasia could have a significant “ripple” effect. Eurasia contains over half of the world’s landlocked countries, including many landlocked developing countries, which face many logistics barriers to trade. These landlocked areas can benefit greatly from having access to digital technology and greater communication with the rest of the world.

Examples of the Digital Divide in Developing Countries

The digital divide is an important challenge to overcome around the world in developed and developing countries alike. However, the impact on developing countries differs from the impact on developed countries. Compared to developed countries, developing countries are more likely to have the following kinds of challenges:

  • Widespread inequalities. In developed countries, access to resources like computers is typically available through public institutions like libraries. In developing countries, inequalities from a lack of internet connectivity or because of 5G deployment challenges can cause divides across a larger percentage of the population. Resources aren’t available through alternate means, so many people simply don’t have any access.
  • Lack of education. In developed countries, individuals can struggle to get an adequate education, but public education is available, and there are programs to help children catch up. In developing countries, individuals might not have any access to education for any number of reasons, including a lack of transportation.
  • Political instability. In developing countries, political limitations on technological access and unstable governments can prevent individuals from having consistent access to the resources needed to close the digital divide.

Examples of the Impact of the Digital Divide

There are many ways that the digital divide negatively impacts developing countries, including the following examples:

  • Limiting economy-boosting activity that relies on telecommunications or internet communication
  • Limiting scientific research and advancement that relies on access to information and communication technology
  • Narrowing social networks, as internet access and social media use encourage connection between family and friends
  • Reducing gender equality and widening the gender digital divide, as women are 20 percent less likely than men to access the mobile internet, according to a Groupe Spéciale Mobile Association (GSMA) poll

Examples of Overcoming the Digital Divide

As referenced earlier, South Korea’s investment in infrastructure and education is one of the most successful examples of a country overcoming the digital divide. South Korea increased the share of public expenditure on education over a decade and put a focus on science and technology studies. As a result the number of graduates in engineering, manufacturing, and construction is much higher than the average estimated by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Developed countries like the United Kingdom have made progress in overcoming digital inequality as well. According to a policy paper, 21 percent of Britain’s population doesn’t have basic digital skills to take advantage of the opportunities provided to internet users. To combat this digital gap, the country is using policies and programs to build digital skills in the population over the next few years.

Call to Close the Digital Divide

Without dedicated initiatives to close the digital divide in developing countries, developing nations that are already disadvantaged in areas like education and economic growth will fall further behind. Countries around the world should unite efforts to ensure digital equity. Working together, we can determine the best solutions for closing the digital divide and give everyone opportunities to participate in the digital age.

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