January 12, 2018

Closing the Digital Divide: Driving Development Overseas

By Anabelle Nuelle

Earlier this week, Secretary Sonny Perdue declared that “rural broadband is our duty to farmers.” Without reliable access to the internet, rural populations are often cut off from new financial resources, the latest agricultural techniques, and better educational opportunities. To meet this challenge, President Trump recently signed an executive order to expand broadband internet access in rural communities, arguing that “Americans need access to reliable, affordable broadband internet service to succeed in today’s information-driven, global economy.”

With 90 percent of people in the developing world living without access to the internet , many of the problems rural communities face here at home are also mirrored overseas. Luckily, the Administration is working to expand internet connectivity both at home and abroad, which will not only benefit American farmers and businesses, but spur economic growth and development in some of the world’s poorest countries.

Driving Economic Growth

The relationship between broadband connectivity and economic prosperity in developing countries is clear: the World Bank found that just a 10 percent increase in broadband subscriptions in developing countries boosts economic growth by 1.4 percent. With three billion people around the globe still lacking basic internet access, expanding broadband is an important tool for driving growth throughout the developing world.

When developing countries gain high speed internet access, America gains stronger trading partners, new markets for American goods, and new opportunities for private investment. With 95 percent of the world’s consumers located outside our borders — and many of the fastest growing economies located in Africa — U.S. government investments overseas can help drive America’s continued prosperity.

Tradition of American Leadership

Speaking at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in India last November, USAID Administrator Mark Green announced the launch of a new initiative aimed at providing internet access to the 1.7 billion women who are currently offline. The WomenConnect Challenge, which is set to launch early this year, seeks to bridge the digital gender divide by finding innovative ways to connect women to essential digital tools and services.

Even during his tenure as the U.S. Ambassador to Tanzania, Mark Green hailed the advantages of the internet and capitalized on public-private partnerships to increase internet access across Tanzania, which at the time, only had 1.3 percent of its population online.

USAID’s ongoing Tanzania 21st Century initiative (TZ21) has built on Ambassador Green’s efforts: harnessing the power of the internet to advance teachers’ training and update learning materials in 900 primary schools. Partnering with American businesses and local actors–including Microsoft, Intel, and the Tanzanian government–TZ21 provides teachers with dynamic “e-content” to help them teach reading, math, and science in more effective and stimulating ways. In reading comprehension alone, TZ21 has directly improved the education of over 268,000 Tanzanian children.

Recognizing the potential that broadband connectivity brings to development, the private and public sectors have also partnered to invest in internet access around the globe. In Latin America and the Caribbean, USAID has partnered with NetHope, an organization that connects nonprofits with technology innovators, to form the Broadband Partnership of the Americas (BPA). The BPA draws on resources from public and private partners to design and implement national broadband strategies, link existing networks, and bolster overall connectivity. In regions like Latin America and the Caribbean — which claim an average broadband access rate of only 29 percent — a mere 10 percent increase in broadband subscription rates could boost GDP by more than 3 percent and increase productivity.

Next Step: Engage Congress

Last year, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) oversaw the passage of the Digital Global Access Policy Act in the House to promote internet connectivity in developing countries. He underscored the advantage that global internet access poses for women’s empowerment, poverty eradication, and U.S. interests, noting that, “Three billion people are being denied the benefits of the free flow of information and game-changing innovations in health, education and commerce. And three billion consumers remain out of the reach of American goods and services.”

As demonstrated last week, President Trump knows the innumerable advantages of internet access well, including its ability to “increase economic prosperity”, “extend the reach of affordable, high-quality health” and “enrich student learning with digital tools”. With the House already on board, the Administration should press the Senate to take up its own legislation to close the global digital divide as well. Though the future of American farming may have never looked brighter with broadband connectivity by its side, the U.S. stands to gain even more by extending internet access across the globe.

image photo credit: USAID