Digitalisation for a Just Social Compact: Global South Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic

LIRNEasia · IEP · Research ICT Africa

The final synthesis report of the COVID-19 Responses for Equity (CORE) Project has been completed. The CORE Project encompasses the Latin American, South Asian, and African regions and is delivered via a Global South consortium. The study responds to global and localised calls for renewal of the social compact that acknowledges the central role of digital inclusion and equity in enabling the active participation of citizens in the economy and society. 

Using a mixed-methods approach that included both nationally representative surveys and qualitative data-gathering tools, the research sought to understand the strengths and deficiencies of COVID-19 digital response strategies in the key areas of digital inequality and digital substitution (including with respect to gender and the needs of older adults), informality, remote and platform work, social protection, taxation, and education. 

Amongst multiple findings, the research confirmed that mobile technology was the primary means to access the Internet for the majority of low-income earners in the surveyed countries (South Africa, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, India, Peru, and Colombia). However, in some countries, a basic mobile phone is still the predominant type of device owned, with in some instances smartphone adoption is still accounting for less than a third of the population. Given that online transactions in a context of heightened digitalisation increase the pressure to transact online, while also requiring at least partly dedicated and relatively advanced digital devices, a widening of digital inequalities can be observed. 

Simultaneously, the invisibility of the unconnected, who tend to be rural, less educated, elderly, and women, needs attention. This highlights the importance of addressing demand-side constraints to access, as well as attending to supply-side issues such as mobile network coverage and affordable use, and creating an affordable market for smartphone devices.

Though gender gaps have declined since 2018, the degree of decline varies significantly. An important driver for women coming online was the need to assist children with schoolwork, and it remains uncertain whether they remained online after schools reopened. Data on gender also lack the nuances for more specific policy planning and evaluation. Even in a context where the gender gap has been narrowed, segments of the female population may be unequally affected given that women are not a heterogeneous group. 

The lack of digital skills amongst older adults and their absence from labour markets and educational institutions where these skills could be learned means that older adults often rely on their close social circles to enable them to transact online. Older adults generally have a low reliance on digital channels to obtain information and to interact with public and private services. A major barrier to them coming online is a lack of trust which is likely to increase their dependency on paper-based transactions for social safety programmes.

While governments in the Global South took steps to reduce the social and economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic through different state support interventions, low use of digitally enabled channels for accessing social protection schemes was observed. This was likely driven, at least in part, by Internet use being lower among groups that social protection programmes are aimed at, such as the poor, elderly, and persons with disabilities. When transactions were remote, low-end technology solutions such as SMS or USSD were preferred. High transaction costs, patron-client relationships, and ineffective and siloed administration were inhibitors to access programmes. 

The microenterprise survey results indicate low levels of tax compliance and local municipality registration which confirm the invisibility of the informal sector to the state. While the Internet offers a plausible way both to strengthen the sector – for example through cash transfers – and to make informal businesses visible to the state for taxation planning, resources need to be allocated to equip the most vulnerable businesses in developing countries for digital substitution and financial inclusion. Efforts to reduce informality, including through digitalisation, can also have positive impacts on long-term development and poverty reduction.

While platform work has increased across most countries surveyed (the exception is South Africa), remote work was a possibility for only a few, such as those working in the information and communication technology industries and financial and insurance services. Many who engaged in informal work activities remotely considered themselves to be unemployed because they had neither frequent customers nor contractual obligations.

Education was a key driver of Internet adoption. However, challenges included poor signal quality, high data costs, and an insufficient number of devices in households. Schools were also unprepared to deliver remote education and children struggled to maintain the necessary attention for online learning. As a result, the education deficit during the pandemic requires additional measures to redress.

The report makes multiple policy recommendations with respect to harnessing digitalisation and datafication for the new social compact proposed by the United Nations: 

  • Build national and global governance frameworks based on a practical articulation of the concept of digital public goods; 
  • Harmonise national and regional digital, social and economic policy; 
  • Develop reliable and nuanced data on digital inequalities financed by a global digital solidarity fund; 
  • Develop alternative policies and regulatory strategies to promote access and greater use of digital services; 
  • Improve the readiness of educational institutions for remote learning; 
  • Harness digitalisation and datafication for social protection; 
  • Update labour policies for existing and emerging forms of labour; 
  • Leverage increased visibility of informal workers and firms for resource mobilisation; and
  • Develop strategies to mobilise resources from large multinational corporations.

Find the report linked below.

Suggested citation

Gillwald, A (ed). (2023). Digitalisation for a just social compact: Global South lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic. Institute of Peruvian Studies, LIRNEasia & Research ICT Africa.