In 2008-09 my wife and I volunteered at an orphanage for boys in rural Honduras. Walking in the nearby village one day, up the hill from the river along the pot-holed dirt road comes an ox-drawn cart…. with the driver talking on a cell phone!
What a strikingly incongruous image. Yet it tells us something important.
Cell phones, once a luxury, are now almost a necessity. For the impoverished, especially in rural areas, they can make all the difference for one’s life and health. Governments in developing countries may never build the power lines necessary for landline phones. It’s just not a budgetary priority. The connectivity a cell phone provides, however, allows current information, access to critical services, and contact with family and friends.
Ours is an increasingly digital world. And as technology grows at an incredible pace, cell phones are only an initial gateway into this new world. Access to the internet has become a critical tool for education, for healthcare and for social services.
The Secretary-General of the United Nations points to the “yawning gap” in internet access, with less than half the world’s population online. If we are to “Build Forward Better” leaving no one behind, it includes leaving no one offline. And the longer we wait, the more people not only fall behind but fall further behind. Digital rights, at this time in world history, are Human Rights.
An entirely new mindset about collaboration is the starting point. We need a partnership to connect the world. We cannot discuss connectivity with a cost-based approach. To overcome the digital divide, nations and the private sector need to explore pragmatic solutions to achieve affordable, universal internet access. And fundamental digital skills can be easily taught.
Think of the consequences of not bridging this gap. School children, especially during the COVID19 pandemic, need these tools for basic education. How many in poorer countries are falling behind at an alarming rate for lack of computer access? It is shameful to leave so many children unschooled. How many people forced to be on the move—refugees, migrants, the internally displaced—are either totally out of touch or spending, according to recent estimates, up to 70% of their meager resources to pay for unreliable phone service? Telehealth is growing as a more affordable healthcare option. Should it not be available to everyone? Again, what are those in rural areas, abandoned women raising small children, or the disabled, to do? Do we not feel a moral obligation to insist that the basic new technologies be available to everyone?
For all its dangers and misuse, the internet is knowledge and opportunity that can empower people to act on their interests and needs. And it is possible to achieve great success. Argentina reports that fully 85% of its population is now connected. Realistically progress will vary greatly nation to nation, depending on each country’s financial possibilities. But the starting point is the conviction that affordable universal connectivity is a right people should enjoy today, and that it will lead to a populace that is healthier, more educated and better positioned to contribute to a prosperity that enriches the entire nation.
Note: inspired by the UN’s Dept. of Economic and Social Affair webinar “Digital Inclusion for All”
NGO representative of the Congregation of the Mission to the UN
Congregation of the mission-un-ngo.com