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It’s time for a resolution on digital equity

Digital empowerment means more than just access. Let’s imagine that a female entrepreneur in rural Bangladesh has gained access to a smartphone and 5G connectivity. Will this mean she can access electricity to charge the device? Will she know how to run software updates, be able to access education, apply for a visa, or send money abroad?

Bridging the growing digital equity gap is about far more than providing mere access. It’s the quality of access that matters.

While there may be more people online than ever before, the gap between those who can, and cannot leverage the internet to their advantage is growing.

That’s why mere access is not enough and is only the starting point. We need both policy and infrastructure to ensure that the world’s most vulnerable people can leverage the internet to their advantage.

That’s why, when speaking at the UN’s High Level Political Forum at the 78th general assembly, we have called for a global resolution of closing the digital divide.

The UN’s current Sustainable Development Goals do indeed encompass digital access. Buried in SDG 9C, who’s overall goal is to “build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialisation and foster innovation,” we can see the target to “significantly increase access to ICT and strive to provide universal and affordable access to the internet in LDCs by 2020.”

While progress on this goal has been real yet modest, it is time to broaden the scope of our thinking in relation to digital access.

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While progress on this goal has been real yet modest, it is time to broaden the scope of our thinking in relation to digital access.

As many know, the pandemic saw an online explosion. During 2020, some 466 million people went online for the first time.

However, true digital equity comes from ensuring that the citizens of the world can actually navigate the online world, not just access it.

This is why we must distinguish between universal and meaningful connectivity.

In my home country of Bangladesh, as part of our Smart Bangladesh Vision 2041 programme that aims to make Bangladesh a fully digitised nation, we have built frugal yet effective digital solutions for our citizens.

One such example of this type of technology would be Bangladesh’s MyGov platform. The platform has solved various headaches by clumping various essential government services onto one app, from visa applications to land registry.

A multiple solution approach is crucial in a nation where 60 per cent of citizens, or some 103 million people, live in rural areas, often many miles away from the closest government building. Even if citizens do not have internet access, they can call the helpline 333 to ensure they get the service they need. In fact, this government portal hosts over 51,000 government offices under one umbrella.

Today, we are only one step away from allowing access to 130 million Bangladeshi expatriates to the entire range of MyGov capabilities. What’s more, it will cost us nothing since we used existing coding platforms.

However, closing the digital divide is about expanding access to the private sector too.

The rise of Bangladesh's ecommerce platform EkShop (translating to oneshop) is one such example. By connecting entrepreneurs with a series of Bangladesh’s Union Digital Centres, Ekshop was able to grant access to the national market to thousands of micro-entrepreneurs and customers.

However, closing the digital divide is about expanding access to the private sector too. Quote

Today, Ekshop has 991 collection points nationwide, and almost 120,000 thousand entrepreneurs are using this platform in one way or another, and it has served 4 million customers.

Ekshop has now become the logistical backbone of Bangladesh’s e-commerce industry. Beyond Bangladesh, Ekshop has become a case study & blueprint for economic digital inclusion across the world, with trial platforms being run in South Sudan, Yemen, Turkey and Malaysia.

Our e-Quality Centre for inclusive innovation based in Bangladesh plans to build on these successes. It is an initial vision of how we can bridge this divide, and then export some of our frugal, yet impactful innovations across the globe, to the people and places who need it the most. The e-Quality center will also be used to fund technologies and support research that seek to solve problems of digital access and inequality.

This project has already been launched at the high-level political forum session of the 78th General assembly. Our hope is that we can use this momentum to draft a resolution through the UN, in order to bring the issue of the global digital divide to the attention of the international community.

Today more than ever, economic participation means online engagement. It is therefore crucial that governments across the globe ensure that the right kind of digital access is granted to those citizens who need it the most. In order to make true progress to reach the UN’s sustainable development goals by 2030, governments across the globe must unite and place the Zero Digital Divide at the center of their domestic and international development programs.

This piece was co-written by Dr Syed Munstair Mamun and Ashfaq Zaman, the communication adviser to Aspire 2 Innovate, the national innovation agency of the government of Bangladesh.

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Dr Syed Munstair Mamun is the Chief Innovation Officer and Director General at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Bangladesh. 

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