Digital connectivity is one of the four pillars of the recently launched G7 Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment (PGII). PGII is a multi-nation effort to fund infrastructure in low- and middle-income nations that results in sustainable and inclusive economic growth. Technological innovations are the cornerstone to improving economic growth. Unfortunately, the rate at which countries and certain groups of people have been able to access these innovations has not been equal.
A lack of digital inclusion exacerbates existing inequities in already-marginalized groups of people such as the poor, women, youth, and people with disabilities. Technological innovations have impacted every aspect of life, from the global economy to humanitarian assistance. In 2020, a U.N. report found that almost 87% of the populations in developed countries had Internet access, while only 19% of the populations in developing countries had access. Women are also less likely to have access to the Internet than men. In low- and middle-income countries, women are 26% less likely to use mobile Internet than men. Studies show that women face more barriers than men to digital connectivity such as digital illiteracy, time scarcity, and cultural and religious taboos.
Digital connectivity increases economic growth and reduces poverty rates by raising household incomes and lowering consumer consumption. In the Kerala region of India, tracking weather conditions and wholesale prices through Internet access via mobile phones increased profits for fishermen by 8%. Additionally, prices dropped 4% for consumers in the region. In Peru, mobile phone usage increased by 11% between 2004 and 2009. Due to the readily available information on prices and inputs via mobile phones, families were able to eliminate costly journeys to the capital city, reduce uncertainty, and limit the potential of being exploited on the markets. This reduced poverty by 8%. Digital connectivity and expanding access to information via the Internet increases skilled employment, raises household incomes, and creates job opportunities all of which increase economic growth.
Gender Digital Gap
The Global System for Mobile Communications (Groupe Spécial Mobile or GSMA) found that women in low- and middle-income countries are 10% less likely than men to own a mobile phone. The GSMA report also stated that closing the gender gap in mobile internet use across low- and middle-income countries could add $700 billion in GDP growth. USAID launched the WomenConnect Challenge in 2018 to support women’s economic empowerment. AFCHIX, a challenge winner from round one, created entrepreneurial opportunities for women in Senegal, Morocco, Kenya, and Namibia to work as network engineers. The World Bank Digital Dividends report found that online work expands women’s access to work due to its flexible nature that can be tailored to fit family circumstances. Access to the Internet provides some women with the opportunity to participate economically while maintaining balance with their family life.
Improving digital connectivity additionally strengthens response efforts during health crises. Inadequate digital infrastructure during the 2014-2015 Ebola crisis in Liberia led to ineffective monitoring of the disease. In response to this disaster, USAID launched a digital system to connect government offices, health clinics, and businesses to high-speed Internet. During this time, IntraHealth and UNICEF created an information-sharing platform called mHero to connect ministries of health and health workers. This online platform facilitated fast, informative communication to frontline health workers and precise case reporting to slow the spread of the disease.
In Mali, the Mali Health Organizing Project uses a custom social network application designed for cell phones to provide women with information regarding preventative health care access. It is voice-based so that it is accessible to women with low-literacy. In 2018, the malaria incidence rate for individuals in the care of Mali Health was 6.1% compared to 18.9% nationally. Incidence rate for malnutrition was at .32% compared to 18.6% nationally.
U.S. Global Leadership Matters
Improving digital connectivity and equal Internet access has mobilized millions of dollars in investments by making them more effective and efficient. For example, USAID, in partnership with the Indonesian government, in 2014 launched a five-year National Broadband Plan which generated approximately $23 billion in low-cost technologies to deliver Internet access to underserved populations. Further, in Uganda, USAID supported digital mapping of transportation networks to increase means of access to health care facilities, helping decrease maternal mortality by over 30%.
The United States and G7 countries have also pledged to work with like-minded partners around the globe to expand economic opportunities and enable digital connectivity. For example, Digital Invest, a finance program that improves digital connectivity and provides financial services, was awarded $3.45 million in State Department and USAID funding. They will invest in Internet service providers and financial technology companies in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Digital Invest aims to mobilize up to $335 million in investment capital. Together, allied countries aim to mobilize a total of $600 billion by 2027 to further economic growth, advance gender equity, and upgrade the infrastructure of health systems.
The United States plays a central role in advancing inclusive economic growth, gender empowerment, and global health through investments in digital connectivity around the world. With healthier and more prosperous communities around the world, these global investments remain critical to the economic, health, and security interests of Americans.