Can digital technologies really be used to reduce inequalities?

By Tim Unwin, Chairholder, UNESCO Chair in ICT4D, Royal Holloway, University of London1, and Co-Founder of TEQtogether2

The numerous initiatives created over the last 20 years using Information and Communication Technologies for Development (ICT4D) have transformed the lives of many people living in poorer countries. However, at the same time, they have also greatly increased the economic power and wealth of the owners and shareholders of large global technology corporations. In 2017, Oxfam reported that eight men owned the same wealth as the poorest half of humanity; five of these men made most of their wealth directly from the technology sector.3 Of course, such technologies can reduce inequalities, but the hidden, ugly secret of “digital development” is that instead of improving the lives of the poorest and most marginalised, such technologies have actually dramatically increased inequality at all scales, from the global to the local.

Few people and organisations emphasise this, focusing instead on the glass being half-full rather than half-empty. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and countless others have thus recently praised the achievement that 51.2% of the world’s population were using the Internet by the end of 2018.4 However, this means that 48.8% are still not using it. If the Internet brings benefits, then just under half of the world’s people are being structurally disadvantaged. Yet, this need not be. If we have the will to do so, we can indeed work together with people with disabilities, children at risk of living and working on the streets, refugees, women and girls in patriarchal societies, ethnic minorities, and those living in geographically isolated areas to help empower them through the design and use of relevant technologies.

Source: ITU (2018) Measuring the Information Society Report, Volume 1, Geneva: ITU, p.9

The evidence on increasing inequality is incontrovertible. Active mobile-broadband subscriptions (see chart) have grown throughout the world over the last decade. Those who focus their attention on economic growth as the means to reduce absolute poverty see this as positive. But, look more closely. The difference between the developed and least developed countries in 2007 was only around 20 subscriptions per 100 people. By 2018, the difference had risen to around 80. As is so often the case, increasing economic growth has therefore also increased inequalities in access and thus benefits.

Grateful thanks are due to Sanna Ojanperä and Mark Graham from the Oxford Internet Institute for permission to use this brilliant map for my research

This can also be seen spatially in the map of broadband affordability (see map). This shows all too clearly that the costs of using broadband as a percentage of average income are usually very much higher in economically poor countries and for poor people than they are for those living in the economically richer countries of, for example, North America and Europe.  This, too, is well known, but the scale of it is not always sufficiently appreciated. As the map shows, broadband subscriptions in much of Africa cost more than a quarter of average income, and in several countries they are more than half the average income. Not only are such costs high, but also the quality of connectivity is usually much slower and unreliable in poorer countries. The benefits people can gain from using the latest generation of mobile devices connected to 4G, or now even 5G networks, are vastly greater than for those only using basic phones on 2G networks, or even none at all.

Why is this important? These well-known observations have not yet sufficiently translated into actions. It is generally believed that access to technologies will somehow beneficially trickle down to the “next billion”. Still, that would leave the poorest and most marginalised even further behind. As old technologies become more widely accessible, newer ones will continue to privilege the richest and most powerful. Notions of “smart cities” thus marginalise those living in rural areas and in what might disparagingly be called “stupid villages”.

Moral grounds should suffice to convince people that such increasing inequalities resulting from the spread of digital technologies are indeed wrong. However, such arguments seem insufficient to convince those advocating the use of digital technologies in development because of their contribution to economic growth. ICTs are rarely mentioned in international fora relating to SDG10 on reducing inequalities, and interestingly none of the targets for this goal make any references to digital technologies.

The failure to address digital inequalities is more than a moral imperative; the socio-political and economic implications are also serious. ICTs undoubtedly enable governments and companies that wish to surveil their citizens and customers to do so more easily, and so those “off the grid” may well be at an advantage in avoiding such surveillance. However, increasing inequalities resulting from the appropriation of ever newer and more expensive technologies by the middle classes are already leading to rising social tensions. As poor and marginalised people come to see their richer digital neighbours enjoying the benefits of these technologies, their failure to acquire them and gain equivalent benefits become significant potential sources of conflict and violence. Moreover, declining rates of increase in Internet use over the last decade are worrying investors in digital corporations that are failing to deliver on their anticipated growth rates. The inability to expand markets at the necessary pace is itself one of the factors contributing to a global slowdown in the digital economy.

So, what needs to change? Three fundamental things must be done to reverse these increasing digital inequalities. All of them are remarkably easy to do with the will to act. First and foremost, governments and international organisations, such as UN agencies and the OECD, need a fundamental change in approach away from encouraging the use of digital technologies and innovation in support of economic growth to one focusing on their appropriate use by the poorest and most marginalised. The private sector will deliver on growth in its own interest; governments should, at least theoretically, support all of their citizens. Second, we need to understand that digital technologies in themselves have no power to effect change. Such an instrumental view of technology has been hugely damaging because it hides the interests underlying their design and production. Unless new technologies are created with marginalised people to serve their specific interests and empowerment, then inequalities will continue to grow. Finally, we all need to change our use of language to reflect such a radically different approach. Instead of calling the poorest and most marginalised the “last billion”, we should call them the “first billion” because they are the most important. We should stop propagating the myth of “bridging the digital divide” when that divide is becoming increasingly wide and impossible to “bridge”. We should focus instead on working with and in the interests of the poor.5

Yes, co-creating digital technologies with and for marginalised communities can indeed contribute to their empowerment and reduce inequalities, but only if we all really have the will to make that happen.

1. UNESCO Chair in ICT4D,

2. TEQtogether,

3. Oxfam (2017) An economy for the 99%, Oxford: Oxfam,; see also Oxfam (2019) Public good or private wealth, Oxford: Oxfam,

4. ITU (2018) New ITU statistics show more than half the world is now using the Internet,

5. For a much more detailed account of what needs to be done, see: Unwin, T. (2017) Reclaiming Information and Communication Technologies for Development, Oxford: Oxford University Press