The need for people to gain access to ICT resources and narrow the digital divide is crucial, and is especially relevant now in the light of the Sustainable Development Goals. It is also important to understand how access to the Internet affects the level of economic and social development in a country.
What are the effects of the global Internet on international development? How can ICTs opportunities for development be harnessed and controlled?
Following the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals in September 2015, there have been many initiatives aimed to explore the ways in which ICTs could catalyse development; some examples include the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD)’s ICT for Development programme, and the 2015 and 2016 WSIS Forums, which heavily focused on linking the SDGs to ICT solutions. The 2016 World Development Report of the World Bank provided an in-depth look into the broader development benefits from using digital technologies.
The World Summit on Information Society (WSIS) process has strongly positioned itself in the development context. In 2015, WSIS Action Line facilitators published a matrix, linking the Action Lines directly to the SDGs. WSIS Forum 2016 anchored all activities and plans in the context of the SDGs. As the links between the WSIS Action Lines and the SDGs show, the effects of ICT on socio-economic development are diverse and multi-directional. As ICT has deeply penetrated the dynamics of connected societies, it can have a pivotal effect on modern-day economies in a multitude of domains. For example, ICT can help in the fight against poverty, by improving nutrition and promoting sustainable agriculture. Furthermore, ICT applications in the health sector can promote well-being, and applications in education can stimulate quality education and learning opportunities for all. The accessibility to ICT for vulnerable groups can help in their empowerment, and use of ICTs by governments has the potential to generate more effective, accountable, and inclusive institutions.
These are only a handful of examples of the wide-ranging effect of ICTs on socio-economic development. The topic was addressed in further detail in the World Bank’s 2016 Development Report, Digital Dividends, which offers a comprehensive analysis of the benefits that digital technologies can bring for development. According to the report, digital technologies bring benefits to people (easier access to information, jobs, and other opportunities), businesses (more productivity and trade, greater competition and innovation), and governments (better public services and enhanced interaction with citizens). Yet, challenges remain in fully capturing the opportunities that digital technologies generate, and countries need to work on ‘analog complements’, including strengthened regulations and accountable institutions.
Finally, the Commission on Science and Technology for Development has focused its 2015-2016 intersessional activity on the theme ‘Foresight for digital development’, examining the potential long-term effects of quickly-developing digital applications (including the Internet of Things, online education, 3D printing, digital automation, etc.) on the economy, society, and the environment. The Commission has made a number of recommendations to governments, encouraging them to, inter alia, adopt appropriate policies to support the development of emerging technologies and to take advantage of the opportunities they create, and to promote an enabling environment for digital development, with a focus on areas such as human capital, ICT and complementary infrastructure, and legal frameworks.
In short, the effects of ICTs on socio-economic development are complex and wide-ranging. Moreover, with the continuous innovations in the ICT sector, it has become a challenge to have up-to-date information about the social consequences and potential of digital technologies. Nevertheless, the growing interest in these social and economic dimensions of ICTs provides possibilities to better measure and untangle the web of ICT’s impact on society, and to find out how to best utilise ICT applications for socio-economic development.