Policies to promote inclusion24.09.2020
Cross-sectoral policies: digital skills and literacy
Universal access (UA) policies have evolved to extend beyond the information and communications technology (ICT) sector itself, more broadly including cross-sectoral approaches that can leverage ICT benefits across multiple economic segments. The Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development (the Broadband Commission) highlights the idea of “meaningful universal connectivity,” encompassing broadband adoption that is “not just available, accessible, relevant and affordable, but that is also safe, trusted, empowering users and leading to positive impact” (Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development 2019: ix). The ideas of empowering users and leading to positive impact are arguably the ultimate goals of cross-sectoral policies intended to improve and expand the use of ICTs to achieve broader development goals.
In one example, the World Economic Forum noted the importance of two such cross-sectoral needs in the application of its “Internet for All” investment model in the Northern Corridor countries of East Africa (Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan and Uganda). Among the main hurdles identified by the WEF were a lack of advanced digital skills and a dearth of local content development (World Economic Forum 2017).
Perhaps the most prominent example of cross-sectoral thinking is demonstrated by the inclusion of digital skills in UA policies and plans, as well as the inclusion of such ICT skill-building in plans and policies in other sectors. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) has identified the benefits of building digital skills and applying them in both work and personal aspects of individuals’ lives (ITU 2018: 5):
- Work: qualification for jobs in conventional sectors; enable participation in emerging sectors; leverage advances in digital technologies, platforms, and devices; important to changing nature of work environments.
- Access to information: safe access to news and information; communication with friends and family; access to key services (e-health, e-government, digital finance, agricultural technology, and transportation).
Building on the Broadband Commission’s view that digital skills exist on a spectrum, the ITU has defined basic, intermediate, and advanced skills (Broadband Commission 2017a: 4; ITU 2018: 5-7). These definitions are useful as reference points for policy-makers determining the digital skills and cross-sectoral components of UA plans.
- Basic skills are foundational for performing basic tasks, akin to traditional literacy and numeracy, and include familiarity with use of hardware, software, and basic online operations such as email or form completion.
- Intermediate skills enable critical evaluation of technology and content and currently may include work-related functions such as desktop publishing, digital graphic design, and digital marketing, although ongoing technical change will necessitate changes in what is considered an intermediate skill.
- Advanced skills are those required by professional ICT specialists, such as computer programming and network management, as well as broader abilities such as digital entrepreneurship.
While digital skills may be most applicable to the different stages of educational and professional development indicated, they can be introduced and taught at different developmental points.
Uruguay’s Plan Ceibal (Basic Informatic Educative Connectivity for Online Learning), was created in 2007 to foster inclusion and equal opportunity while supporting educational policies with technology. Beyond supplying students with computers and connectivity, the initiative also provides programmes, educational resources, and teacher training intended to better incorporate technology into the educational process. An outgrowth of Plan Ceibal, Jóvenes a Programar enables advanced skills by providing training in software testing and common programming languages to Uruguayans between the ages of 17 and 26 who successfully complete their secondary education. The goal of Jóvenes a Programar is to expand inclusion in the technology industry, while encouraging students to apply computational and logical thinking to new areas.
In some cases, technology-enabled activities are used to encourage ICT-related skills such as logical thinking, reasoning, and sequencing at the pre-school level. See, for example, Singapore’s various programmes to increase exposure to digital skills through the educational system.
As highlighted in the ITU’s Digital Skills Toolkit, advanced skills can be provided through a wide range of trainers, including employers, technical and vocational schools, bootcamps and other commercial training programmes, and makerspaces (ITU 2018: 43). In some cases, training is sponsored by a government, but provided through technical schools, vocational schools, or universities, such as Argentina’s 111mil plan. The 111mil plan offers a free two-semester programming course and certification that is provided at institutions across the country to citizens who have completed secondary education. The certification is endorsed by Argentina’s Ministry of Education and Ministry of Production and is intended to assist individuals seeking work in the ICT sector.
It is noteworthy that such initiatives often do not fall under the umbrella of a UA policy, even though they address digital skills needs. The use of a cross-sectoral component such as digital skill-building creates beneficial ripple effects across entire economies, expanding economic opportunities and strengthening communications regardless of the industrial sector, geographic location, or population group. Beyond access to ICTs, ensuring that their potential benefits can be leveraged across multiple sectors magnifies their impact and should be a key component of a modern UA policy or programme that may, in turn, take into account coordination with ministries and agencies outside the ICT sector.
The potential of improved digital skills development cannot be understated. As the Broadband Commission notes, closing the broadband coverage gap in Africa by 2030 would mean that millions of citizens will access the Internet for the first time. It will be critical to help these new users to understand the value of the Internet and how to use it, as well as to build their digital resilience (Broadband Commission 2019, 79).
Promoting local content and content industries
Another key consideration of modern UA policies is driving demand for connectivity through the promotion of relevant content. Beyond providing the connection for users to access content, a forward-looking UA policy should also consider the need to bring the newly connected online and make it relevant for them to take advantage of the connection.
While the Internet hosts a tremendous amount of public and private content, connectivity demand is driven by the availability of content that is relevant to users. This includes ensuring that content is available in relevant languages and is tailored to local needs and interests. From its earliest stages, the Broadband Commission has called for the availability of local content. In its October 2011 “Broadband Challenge” (Broadband Commission 2011: 2), the commission called on governments and civil society to “stimulate local content production as well as the development of local language services and applications for an inclusive digital world.” Software and applications in local languages make education, financial services, healthcare, e-government, and other services more accessible (Intel 2011: 2).
The role of a UA policy in this context is to support efforts that enable local content creation. In one recent example of such an approach, Nigeria’s 2020-2025 National Broadband Plan includes efforts to bring more Nigerian businesses online through free .ng domain name registrations for two years, and through multiple digital literacy and awareness approaches intended to spur demand (Government of Nigeria 2020: 61). Both types of efforts foster increased local content availability. The free domain name registration initiative is intended to promote local content development as well as job creation and expanded online business opportunities for Nigerian companies through a reduction in the cost of establishing a new online business or online presence. Notably, the policy does not direct funds to particular businesses or industries, but rather seeks to provide a universal benefit to all Nigerian businesses seeking to register a domain name, allowing them to direct their resources toward other aspects of developing their business. Responsibility for implementation of such initiatives is spread among various government agencies, with Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy participation included in all of the digital literacy activities, while the domain name registration programme is assigned to Nigeria’s Internet registry association, the IT development agency, and the corporate affairs commission. As is seen in this case, approaches to expanding digital literacy and content creation involve a range of stakeholders.
The Philippines includes a similar component in its National Broadband Plan, stating that the government will support the development of local content and applications to drive broadband demand (Department of Information and Communications Technology 2017: 44). Specifically, the plan includes the following measures:
- provision of incentives to local content developers, beginning with the inception, incubation, and marketing of the content or application;
- government policy and regulatory interventions to develop favourable environments for content and application creation; and,
- consider development of “rich and useful” content and applications to support the delivery of public services and creation of citizen engagement platforms to drive demand; similarly, such resources should be supported by application programming interfaces that allow websites to be displayed in multiple languages, depending on the user’s needs or preferences.
Similarly, Nigeria’s digital literacy-related efforts also include development of educational, vocational, and entrepreneurial content in local languages. Nigeria’s plan also envisions development and implementation of an enhanced national digital virtual e-library that provides a range of digital resources and includes translation of foreign-language material to local languages.
In conjunction with the development of local-language content, there may be a need to consider how to deliver such content to populations lacking traditional literacy and numeracy. A UNESCO-sponsored literature review identified eight key design themes that have been incorporated into digital solutions for users with low literacy and digital skill levels (Zelezny-Green and others 2018):
- use of voice/speech-based computing interface;
- substantial incorporation of graphics;
- use of relationship-based and non-linear user interfaces;
- local or locally relevant content is important for interactive technology adoption by people with low literacy or digital skill levels;
- integration of social/sharing elements to bolster the adoption and spread of technologies;
- designs targeted to people with more education/higher literacy are sometimes useful for people with lower education or literacy levels;
- participatory design methodologies, including codesigning solutions, work best when creating digital solutions for low-literate and low-skilled populations; and
- digital solutions designed for more than one user, especially when a user with more skills/higher literacy is helping someone less proficient with technology, can help lower barriers.
Such considerations can be incorporated into the components of UA or related policies that address emphasizing local or relevant content in order to ensure that it is accessible to the widest range of potential users.
Additional approaches to local content development can include efforts to increase the online availability of government services and information. As a major producer of information that is both locally relevant and presented in the local language, national, state, and local governments are ideally suited to play a role in the implementation of UA policies that create new or expanded online resources that provide useful information to citizens.
Overall, UA policies should consider the potential benefit of increased availability of local content in terms of increasing Internet usage. In crafting goals or action items intended to increase the availability of local content, policy-makers should consider the roles of both the private sector and the public sector in order to maximize the impact of such efforts.
Gender inclusion and accessibility policies
Recognizing that lack of Internet access or usage is not uniform across populations, policy-makers should consider how UA policies and universal access and service funds (UASFs) can be employed to assist those groups with comparatively lower levels of access and usage. In particular, research has identified a need to improve connectivity and digital services access for women and for people with disabilities (PWDs).
Based on 2019 ITU estimates, there was a 17 per cent difference in Internet penetration between men and women worldwide, although the gap varies across regions and income levels (ITU 2019: 3). Notably, developing countries have a difference of 22.8 per cent, while LDCs have a gender gap of nearly 43 per cent. Perhaps of greatest concern is that the gender gap has grown over the past decade. ITU data indicate that the gender gap has increased in the Asia-Pacific, Arab States, and African regions, and also in the developing country and LDC groups between 2013 and 2019.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) notes that the gender gap, sometimes known as the digital gender divide, has multiple root causes, including barriers to access, affordability, education, and lack of technology literacy (OECD 2018: 22). While these aspects are relevant to the digital divide across groups, the OECD also notes the relevance of gender biases and socio-cultural norms leading to gender-based digital exclusion. These can include comparatively higher domestic work and childcare obligations and negative social perceptions of Internet use by women and girls.
Organizations including the Broadband Commission and the World Wide Web Foundation have proposed policy approaches to close the gender gap. Among the four recommendations presented by the Broadband Commission’s Working Group on the Digital Gender Divide was the integration of a gender perspective in strategies, policies, plans, and budgets (Broadband Commission 2017b). This recommendation grows from the recognition that gender-related policies, strategies, and action plans often fail to acknowledge the importance of ICTs and broadband as enabling tools, while broadband strategies, policies, and plans often fail to include a gender dimension. To that end, the working group suggested three primary action items to address this disconnect:
- establishing gender equality targets for Internet and broadband access and use;
- assessing strategies, policies, plans, and budgets for gender equality considerations; and,
- consulting and involving women as well as relevant local communities and experts.
Such approaches are particularly salient for the development or revision of UA policies, increasing the likelihood of addressing the gender gap alongside improving overall connectivity and access.
The World Wide Web Foundation has also identified universal service access funds (USAFs) as an “untapped resource” for addressing the gender digital divide (Thakur and Potter 2018). To that end, the organization has proposed four key recommendations to improve the efficiency and efficacy of USAFs, namely, to address the gender gap:
- Invest at least 50 per cent of funds in projects targeting women’s Internet access and use.
- Make project design and implementation more gender responsive.
- Increase transparency of fund financing, disbursements, and operations.
- Improve diversity in USAF governance and increase awareness of gender issues within the USAF.
A recent example of this approach is Colombia’s 2018-2022 ICT plan, which includes a section on using ICTs as a tool for closing the gender gap (MinTIC 2018: 72). The plan underscores the importance of improving both women’s access to and adoption of ICTs, and also notes the need to address the socio-cultural norms and beliefs that discourage women from using ICTs or pursuing ICT-related careers. Colombia’s plan continues by highlighting two programmes intended to increase women’s use of ICTs and related tools.
There have also been specific programmes focused on developing women’s digital skills. In 2015, the African Technology Foundation and several partners conducted the first of a series of technology bootcamps for women in Tanzania (Alliance for Affordable Internet 2015). The bootcamp was designed to provide digital skills training to female Tanzanian students at higher education institutions, as well as to train them to become “technology ambassadors” that could teach digital skills to other students and to individuals in their home and business communities. Bootcamp participants received introductory training on both basic and intermediate skills, such as word processing, presentation technologies, coding, and software development.
Similarly, Ghana’s government has introduced and supported programmes intended to advance women’s use of technology and Internet-enabled services. Ghana’s USAF, the Ghana Investment Fund for Electronic Communications (GIFEC), is tasked with facilitating the implementation of universal access to electronic communication and the provision of Internet points of presence in underserved and unserved communities, facilitating capacity-building programmes, and promoting ICT inclusion in unserved and underserved communities, and the deployment of ICT equipment to educational, vocational and other training institutions. GIFEC’s efforts have included a commitment to train 2 000 girls in coding in commemoration of International Girls in ICT Day 2020 (April 23, 2020), in association with Cisco. GIFEC has also supported the Digital for Inclusion (D4i) joint initiative with other national and international stakeholders to expand Ghana’s digital economy, financial inclusion, and economic opportunities for underserved and financially excluded populations. D4i set specific targets of reaching 60 per cent of women in targeted areas.
In addition to the gender gap, there are also access disparities that affect PWDs. While ICTs can play a significant role in overcoming barriers faced by PWDs in terms of participating actively in society, technological progress does not guarantee equal access to new and improved technologies. The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) notes that USAFs are a valuable resource that can be used to fund programmes to assist PWDs in the Caribbean (Bleeker 2019), a view that is equally valid in other regions.
Among various action items that more broadly suggest operational improvements to universal service funds, ECLAC proposes several action items to close access gaps for PWDs. These include:
- enable funding to be disbursed to civil society and non-governmental organizations working with PWDs and other marginalized groups;
- include a stronger mandate for PWDs, including an obligation to have annual targets to meet fund objectives;
- increase engagement with PWDs at each stage of a project’s lifespan, including the identification, appraisal, and allocation process;
- increase representation of PWDs in USAFs; and
- invest a fixed percentage of funds in projects to increase access to technology for PWDs.
It is noteworthy that there is significant overlap between the World Wide Web Foundation’s recommendations for addressing the gender gap and ECLAC’s recommendations to improve access for PWDs, and that the D4i initiative in Ghana includes not only targets for reaching women, but also for reaching PWDs. These may point to common approaches to addressing access gaps among other marginalized populations.
Alliance for Affordable Internet. 2015. 2015/16 Affordability Report. Washington D.C.: Alliance for Affordable Internet. https://a4ai.org/affordability-report/report/2015/.
Bleeker. 2019. Using Universal Service Funds to Increase Access to Technology for Persons with Disabilities in the Caribbean. Studies and Perspectives series, ECLAC Subregional Headquarters for the Caribbean, No. 79(LC/TS.2019/59-LC/CAR/TS.2019/2). Santiago: Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC). https://www.cepal.org/sites/default/files/events/files/series_79_lcarts2019_2.pdf.
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Zelezny-Green, Ronda, Steven Vosloo, Gráinne Conole. 2018. Digital Inclusion for Low-skilled and Low-literate People. Paris: United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. https://bit.ly/2RUrQz7.Last updated on: 19.01.2022