The digitisation of the economy and society and the datafication of almost everything we do as those who are connected have promoted economic efficiency, increased access to the means of production, and driven further innovation. These developments have been extremely uneven, both between countries and within them, with the majority of the world’s population still marginalised from access or from productively using the Internet to enhance their well-being or to improve their livelihoods. These intensifying global processes are simultaneously accompanied by a plethora of individual and particularly poorly understood and defined collective risks that if unmitigated, could result in widespread harms. The layering of advanced technologies such as machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) over these existing digital inequalities – which already reflect underlying structural inequalities – is exacerbating inequality and at the heart of one of the most wicked policy problems of our time, the digital inequality paradox.
UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, has identified this when he described digitalisation as one of two seismic shifts that will shape the 21st Century, the other being climate change. He has cautioned, however, that both will widen inequalities even further unless urgently addressed on a planetary scale.
COVID-19 has highlighted the compounding effects of digital inequality on underlying structural inequality. The uneven capabilities of individuals and formal and informal firms to mitigate the public health and economic risks associated with lockdowns through digital substitution of their work, schooling, food-sourcing or social relief and of responses of states, big corporations and the multinational private sector and the non-profit sector have highlighted the centrality of digital inclusion. This is not only the case for economic participation with respect to life opportunities in the erosion, disinformation and disorder. This bleak scenario has been compounded by high incidences of gender, race and ethnic marginalisation and discrimination, particularly among refugees, who fall out of even the most basic safety nets where they exist.
To arrest these negative trends and the lack of progress being made towards achieving the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, the UN Secretary-General has called for a renewal of the social contract, anchored in human rights and gender equality, to rebuild trust and social cohesion that people need to see reflected in their daily lives. Highlighting the centrality of digital inclusion in contemporary society, the Common Agenda calls for a Global Digital Compact: “It should also include updated governance arrangements to deliver better public goods and usher in a new era of universal social protection, health coverage, education, skills, decent work and housing, as well as universal access to the Internet by 2030 as a basic human right so all citizens have a say in envisioning their countries’ futures.”
The realities of underdevelopment in the Global South, combined with the speed of digitalisation, underline the need to innovate policy development and implementation and to propose solutions to the wicked policy problem of the digital inequality paradox, which both reflects and amplifies structural inequalities in developing countries but also has the potential to enable a new social compact.
With its mission of accelerating digital equality and data justice in Africa, RIA has developed a comprehensive submission in response to the UN Secretary-General’s call for inputs on the Global Digital Compact as part of the Common Agenda. It contends that a non-siloed, transversal digital policy that acknowledges the central role of increasingly globalised digital public goods as critical to contemporary forms of democratic participation and as key inputs and enablers of economic transformation is required. Under the right policy conditions such a policy will be essential to post-pandemic economic reconstruction of developing country economies, and the building of more democratic, inclusive and equitable social compacts. This digital public goods governance framework proposed by RIA highlights seven areas that could contribute significantly to more equitable and just policy outcomes:
- Intersectional inequality and the digital inequality paradox
- Public data for evidence-based policy
- Access, pricing, quality
- E-trade, labour, taxation, and social protection
- Data governance and data justice
- Disinformation and disorder
- Harnessing AI for Africa justice.
We urge you to engage with the content and propose amendments and additions through the comments facility on our website and in an online public consultation on 6 April at 2 – 5pm CAT. Zoom link for registration.
Following the finalisation of the submission on 15 April 2023, organisations wishing to do so may endorse or in some other way associate themselves with the submission.
|GDC Webinar Presentation (English)|