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Development’s Digital Divide

STOCKHOLM – On September 25, world leaders will gather in New York to adopt the new Sustainable Development Goals. The SDGs, comprising 17 goals and 169 related targets, are the result of extensive political negotiations, and will set the benchmarks over the next 15 years for achieving the international community’s overarching objective: to “end poverty in all its forms everywhere.”

The SDGs are noble and certainly ambitious. And yet, in a time of profound scientific and technological change, they remain remarkably conventional. Information technology – this century’s defining social and economic development – receives only a brief mention (in one of the sub-targets). Nowhere in the document is there even a hint of the revolutionary role that the nascent explosion in connectivity, information, and data could play in ending poverty.

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There can be no doubting the impact that information technology will have on economic growth. Governments, politicians, and international organizations must harness the potential of the Internet to serve global development and individual empowerment.

Issues concerning security and governance have dominated discussions of cyber policy over the past few years. This is to some extent justifiable: The breadth of topics is staggering, ranging from international norms for state behavior in cyberspace to challenges like cybercrime and growing censorship. But it is also clear that the countries that will gain the most from the ongoing information revolution are those that manage to keep their eyes on the real prize: using this explosion in technology to strengthen their economies and improve the lives of their citizens.

A 2009 study by the World Bank found that a 10% increase in fixed broadband penetration boosts a developing economy’s GDP by about 1.4%. These findings likely vastly understate the impact of the technology; after all, much of the developing world is seeing a rapid rollout of mobile broadband, with much higher capacity than what was available at the time of the study.

The phenomenon is most evident in Asia and Africa – which together account for three-quarters of the global growth in smartphone use this year. As smartphone subscriptions increase from 2.9 billion to 7.7 billion worldwide in the next five years, 80% of the new accounts are expected to be opened by users on these two continents.

The widespread adoption of information technology in the developing world opens up myriad possibilities; we are only at the beginning. Data analysis has been used to fight Ebola in West Africa, and mobile phone networks have been used to bring modern banking to unserved populations throughout the developing world. These new technologies empower people – most notably the rapidly growing youth population – and create new avenues for economic and social development.

Indeed, mobile connectivity may turn out to be the most important development tool ever for the billions of people in emerging Africa and Asia. Of course, there will still be a digital divide. But, increasingly, it will be generational rather than geographical. Within a decade, the majority of young people in Africa will likely be as well connected as those in Europe or North America. This will change the world profoundly.

The big question is whether governments are aware of the potential power of this development. If the SDGs are any indication, it is likely that they are not. The goals and targets that the world is about to embrace do not adequately reflect the significance of this epochal change.

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The absence of awareness is also reflected in the preparations for a high-level UN meeting on international policy concerning the Internet and development that will take place in December. The event, a review of the progress made since the 2005 World Summit on the Information Society, is the culmination of a three-year negotiation process. Unfortunately, political wrangling over issues of Internet governance and cybersecurity have dominated the preparations for the meeting, and there has been little discussion of the revolutionary possibilities that an open, dynamic, and free Internet can provide.

Governments are being left behind as entrepreneurs and innovators race ahead. But maximizing the potential of the new technology requires the stable and predictable operating environment, as well as the support for basic research, that only governments can provide. It is time for world leaders to put the potential of the Internet at the top of the development agenda.