Digital inclusion is a key enabler of economic and social development

Digitally under-served populations risk being left behind, said Alessandra Lustrati, Head of Digital Development in the UK Government’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO). During the ninth annual DSA Global Summit, DSA President Martha Suárez and Alessandra Lustrati discussed FCDO’s digital development policy framework, the UK Digital Access Programme, and the collaboration between FCDO and DSA.

 

Outlining FCDO’s reason for supporting digital development, Lustrati cited evidence that digital technology is a key enabler of inclusive economic growth and social development – becoming even more critical during the COVID-19 pandemic as digital technology underpins response and mitigation measures. Despite the vital importance of getting people digitally connected and able to access information and services, a huge digital divide still exists, and not only in the developing world. In fact, almost half of the world population is still offline, which means large underserved and unserved regions and populations are in danger of being left behind. Better connectivity and digital inclusion will not only amplify the outreach and impact of specific interventions but will also lead to better value for money and more efficient use of public resources to achieve sustainable development.

 

How FCDO promotes digital development

 

FCDO’s work to ensure no-one is left behind in a digital world is articulated into three main policy objectives, Lustrati said: –

  • Digital inclusion – catalyzing affordable and sustainable connectivity, developing digital literacy and skills, and supporting locally relevant digital content and services for underserved communities – focusing on disadvantaged groups including remote rural populations, women and girls, and people living with disabilities.
  • Digital transformation – working with partner countries to facilitate the broader adoption of digital technologies in the economy, society, and government.
  • Responsible digital – promoting a safe and secure digital environment with a focus on open and transparent digital governance.

 

For FCDO, inclusive connectivity is a foundational element of digital development, said Lustrati. Bridging the digital divide requires a holistic approach on two levels:

  • Systemic – working with partner countries to improve policy and regulatory frameworks, engaging in dialogue, and supporting telecom regulators and spectrum agencies to promote a more conducive environment for digital inclusion.
  • Market/community – supporting the testing and demonstration of scalable technology and business models for inclusive, affordable, accessible connectivity – including enabling smaller scale innovators and community-led initiatives to help reach under-served and excluded segments.

 

 

An example of FCDO digital development programming

 

Rather than investing directly in infrastructure or technology, FCDO helps create a better environment for digital development through better policies and regulatory frameworks, and viable models for local connectivity, digital skills, digital content and services . Supporting the foundational elements of digital access and inclusion also helps to ensure applications of technology to different sectors and verticals work well. The UK ‘Digital Access Programme’ is an FCDO-led cross-government partnership with the Digital, Culture, Media & Sports Department (DCMS) that supports digital inclusion, cyber-security capacity building and digital entrepreneurship, operating in Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Brazil, and Indonesia. The project demonstrates the holistic and cross-cutting approach of FCDO to digital development. Since 2019, the Programme has been building relationships with and built the capacity of key institutions and organizations that are crucial for country-wide digital transformation processes, such as telecom regulators, ICT ministries and ICT authorities.

 

Suarez agreed that the three policy and programming pillars outlined by FCDO (digital inclusion, transformation, responsibility) are vital, and underlined the focus on the purpose of connectivity and how spectrum-sharing or dynamic spectrum access can promote inclusion. The DSA advocates for laws, regulations, and economic best practices that will lead to more efficient utilization of spectrum, fostering innovation and affordable connectivity for all. From DSA’s perspective, access to spectrum should not be a barrier to connectivity, which is why it aims to make spectrum abundant through dynamic access that makes the best use of available spectrum. By doing this, it aims to connect the 4 billion underserved people across the globe, stimulating wireless innovation and accelerating an inclusive digital economy.

 

Suarez cited examples such as Wi-Fi, with the existence of so many hybrid models for connectivity making it important for regulators to consider spectrum requirements. To this end, DSA works with spectrum authorities and regulators to understand models and frameworks that would enable the right kind of access.

 

Meaningful collaboration for a fairer digital future

 

Suarez and Lustrati agreed that synergy is important, and that stakeholders need to leverage each other’s expertise and experience to ensure development resources are used effectively and duplication of efforts are avoided. FCDO takes a multi-stakeholder approach, said Lustrati, engaging with a wide range of relevant organizations, including DSA.

 

Outlining lessons learnt and insights, Lustrati pointed out that FCDO is technology- and model- agnostic and needs to seek effective solutions while remaining open to different ways of doing things, provided they enhance digital inclusion in a responsible and sustainable manner. That also means not having a specific blueprint and recognizing that different approaches – whether spectrum sharing or community networks – work differently in different countries. It is not just about technology and corresponding regulation, she told the session, but also about digital awareness, skills, and the capacity of institutions and organizations involved.

 

DSA and FCDO are looking forward to further collaboration, working towards digital inclusion in underserved areas of the world. Focusing on Brazil, Indonesia, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa, the collaboration aims to catalyze affordable internet connectivity using a new spectrum mind-set. Find out more about the DSA/FCDO project, here: https://bit.ly/3rBUFTB