How broadband can help towards social inclusion

Written by  Ashoak Upadhyay

Globalexperiences reveal that training in the uses of the Net and training to enhance the ability to act collectively for the social good are vital accompaniments to the promise that the internet holds out for a more equitable and inclusive society

A bird’s eye view

It is now almost a truism that high-speed broadband connectivity to the internet is one of the foundation stones of a modern society. By offering an increasingly wide and evolving range of economic, social and political benefits, high-speed connectivity has itself acquired a historically new role. What started out as cutting-edge technology available to a few geeks and the elites of society in the West has now become an agent of change.

This transformative quality of the internet became increasingly evident to governments, multilateral agencies and citizens, particularly over the last decade as connectivity underwent radical innovations; fixed telephony gave way to mobile telephony and there was an explosion of data and services that have borne out the promise of the very design of the world wide web envisaged by its founder, Tim Berners-Lee:

There was a time when people felt the internet was another world, but now people realise that it is a tool we use in this world….The original idea of the web was that it should be a collaborative space where you can communicate through sharing.

Data compiled by various agencies bear out the impact of the spread of the Net across the globe, both enabling people to communicate more freely than ever before and examining the prospects of effecting real change in their lives(‘The Connected World: The Internet Economy in the G20’).

Connectivity has entered the discourse of economic growth. It is estimated that by 2016 the internet economy will account for 5.3% of the GDP (Gross Domestic Product) of G20 states (ibid p16.Note: The Group of 20 includes Australia,Argentina, Brazil, Canada, China, India, Indonesia, Turkey, the US and UK among others, with the European Union as the 20th member).

Not just for economic growth,increasingly policymakers are recognising the importance of the internet for sustainable development too. Internet connectivity is one of the most efficient and cost-effective ways of addressing the world’s endemic problems of illiteracy, gender inequality, illhealth and poverty.

Not before time, one might add.

Despite the rapid spread of connectivity, even in the developing world large sections of people, especially poor and marginalised groups, remain untouched by the connectivity revolution. In fact it could be said that the uneven distribution of connectivity has underscored extant inequalities and gaps between the rich and the poor, and between genders. 

In 2010, the United Nations set up the Broadband Commission for Digital Development in response to a call from Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon to step up efforts to meet the UN’s Millennium Development Goals of 2000. Driven by UNESCO and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the BroadbandCommission has been issuing reports on various aspects of broadband inclusion (or exclusion).

Inits September 2014 report (‘State of Broadband’), disparities in network accessibility graphically illustrate disparities in developmentand lapses in public policy relating to accessibility and, shockingly, to data itself. Sex-disaggregated data is not yet widely available for broadband connectivity. As a proxy, the ITU uses Netusage to discover that millions of women around the world in 2013 had no access to the web. The developing world had 16% fewer women with connectivity compared to 2% in the developed world.

Digital gender inequality reflects traditional socio-economic and political inequalities,and in a vicious circle the former reinforces the latter by limiting the ability of women to empower themselves with knowledge and information necessary to gain an equal footing with men.

Similar inequalities exist for the disabled and the aged. In many advanced countries such as Japan, Europe and China, the aged constitute a significant section of the population. They are also the ones with high disposable incomes, yet they are not as digitally included as the young. The same is the case with the disabled (‘Inclusive Financial Services for Seniors and Persons with Disabilities…’).

Education, it is said, isempowerment. Yet illiteracy still drives inequalities and iniquitous conditions in many parts of the world. This is particularly the case with women/girls.

Despite recent advances in girls’ education, a generation of young women has been left behind, who comprise around 61% of today’s illiterate youth…especially in South and West Asia (‘State of Broadband...’, p66).

In 2000, 114 countries gathered at Dakar in Africa for the World Education Forum and drafted an agenda for Education For All (EFA) by 2015 using ICT skills(‘State of Broadband...’, p56). Six goals were agreed upon to bridge the digital divide and empower girls from an early age, ranging from Goal 1 (‘early childhood care and education’) through Goal 4 (‘adult literacy’)toGoal 6 (’quality of education’) (ibid,p57).

The result?

By 2015, the last year of the Dakar agenda, EFA largely remains“unfinished”. Data gathered by UNESCO for 2011 shows a huge shortfall of 5.3 million teachers worldwide.

One of the biggest disappointments since the EFA goals were established in 2000 is that 55% of the 31 million girls currently out of school are expected never even to make it to school.The percentage is higher in the Arab states and in Sub-Saharan Africa where almost twoout of three girls are expected never to go to school (EFA Global…, p5).

Despite recent advances (2011) in girls’ education, over 100 million young girls living in poor and lower-middle-income countries are unable to read a single sentence.

In Cameroon there was an overall improvement in school completion rates but this did not filter down to girls at the poorest levels. These were less likely in 2011 to complete their primary school than in 1998. As a result, the gap in enrolment has widened from 10 percentage points to 20 percentage points. The same is true for the Central African Republic where conflict added to the dismaying results (ibid, p6).

In secondary education, the “most extreme cases of inequalityafflict girls in Afghanistan and Yemen… In Afghanistan there were no girls in secondary school in 1999. By 2011, the female gross enrolment rate had risen to 34%; in Yemen it rose from 21% in 1999 to 39% in 2011,” (ibid, p8).

But the report adds a word of caution. Since women are still discriminated against in the job market, many girls may be deterred from entering secondary school in the hope of bettering their future (ibid, p9).

Gender gap

After 20 years of internet, two-thirds of the world’s poor are still unconnected and “a greater proportion of the unconnected global citizens are women”(‘Doubling Digital Opportunities…’).

In March 2013, ITU and the UNESCO Broadband Commission endorsed a fifth advocacy target calling for gender equality in connectivity.

Equality of status for women that helps them gain access to jobs and incomes can help raise the wealth of a nation. The firm Intel,in 2013, estimatedthat bringing 600 million online could raise global GDP by as much as US$13-18 billion. The World Bank found that eliminating gender discrimination in employment can boost worker productivity by upto 40% (ibid, p10).

Not one but several gender gaps

In what form does the gender gap manifest itself?

Discrimination can arise in various ways. One is affordability and access to the internet. The other is use of internet among those that have access and can afford it.

On both counts, the gap between men and women was significant even in the USA. But it is in the developing countries that the gaps are widest (ibid, p20).InSub-Saharan Africa, for instance, women are less exposed tothe Net on account of the high cost of access.Affordability is a greater issue than availability or digital literacy in the region. Fixed broadband internet services cost 100%more than the average monthly income per capita, while mobile internet is 50% of the same.

“Such high prices disproportionately impact women.” That is why Sub-Saharan Africa ranks highest in the gender gap(ibid, p 22).

The other form of discrimination works in the area of easy access. Many women stay away because of lack of access to the right kind of content. Women would be drawn to the internet if  more relevant content were available; content that makes them aware of their socio-economic and political status in society. Sexist and other forms of online violence can also deter women, but it can also act asa valuable resource centre for women victims of violence.

The favelas of Rio de Janeiro show how

On International Women’s Day, March 8, 2013,UN Women, UNICEF and UNHabitat launched a website for women and girls who were survivors of violence in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro.Althoughreported instances-- as is the case the world over-- represent a fraction of the actual violence perpetrated against women, Rio de Janeiro witnessed a 23% spike in violence in 2012 compared to the previous year.

The website that was launched, which also serves as a smartphone app, provides information on support services such as abuse hotline numbers, information about rights as well as the responsibilities and locations of Specialised Women’s Attention Centres that provide psychological, social and even legal support.The tool also details steps to take after being raped, along with geographical positioning systemsto enable victims to locate the nearest women’s centre, medical centre and public prosecutor’s office(ibid, p26).

National policy and the gender gap

One of the main reasons for the slow absorption of women/girls into the broadband network is that governments have tended to regard ICT policy as a purely technological issue and so have left out social and economic concerns from it. In a similar vein, national policies aimed at bridging the gender gap ignore the importance of ICTin concerns about gender equality (ibid, p27).

According to research by the UN Broadband Commission, only 29% of 119 countries in 2012 had any reference to gender in their national network plans(ibid, p27). The Global Initiative on Inclusive Information and Communication Technology (G3ict) puts this figure lower, at 14%.
Bangladesh, Finland, India, Japan, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey and the USA had references to gender in their national network plans. Surprisingly, Australia and Canada and a large number of Asian,European and Latin American countries did not (ibid,p27).

Among 30 countries that did include gender in their national ICT plans, 57%,or 17 countries,provisioned ICT training for women (ibid, p28). Moreover, half of the countries had measurable targets for female ICT literacy:for example, the Dominican Republic hopes to remove digital illiteracy among women and girls within four years (by 2018)(ibid, p30). Chad too has specific targets: it wants to set up 28 ICT training centres in four years.

The second aspect of policy for ICT and gender equality concerns equal access to ICT. Zimbabwe wants to have equality of access to ICT across all sectors of the economy for women. Other countries like Egypt want all girls’ schools to have PCs.

The third aspect is women’sempowerment. Fourteen countries refer to ICT for women’s empowermentthrough access to knowledge and pedagogic content.Gambia wants to do this to enable greater involvement of women in industry and also women’s ownership of ICT businesses.

Only four countries had policies to enhance women’s decision-making processes. Malawiwants to put in place policy instruments to enable women to be involved in framing ICT policies that aregeared to meeting women’s developmental goals (ibid, p28). Mexico believes that digitalinclusion for women willenable their greater involvement in politics.

Non-governmental efforts

While most governments have tended to ignore the gender gap, a number of agencies and multilateral institutions are busy engaging with this issue.

UNESCO is working to empower women by access to knowledge and information that address gender-specific needs. The UNDP is a founding partnerin International Knowledge Network of Women in Politics (iKNOW Politics), an online interactive network that enables access to information to enhance women’s participation that pools information and dialogue about political participation (ibid, p35).

In 2012, the World Bank organised its Hackathon in Nepal based on experiences in other countries. A group of techies and civil society representatives met to discuss ways to use ICT to end violence against women in a patriarchal society where domestic violence against women is rampant. One-third of married women have experienced violent abuse in Nepal. The good news is that the country is heading towards gender equality in education, a prerequisite for capacity-building through ICTs (ibid,p36).

Disabilities gap

It’s bad enough that many countries do not address the issue of gender equality when working towards a national network of ICT services. Another glaring gap that is evident even in developed countries is the disabilities gap in which the aged are also ignored.This is the case particularly in financial services where the introduction of ICT is opening up a whole new and often alien world to the disabled and the aged.

According to a report on the subject, 15%, or more than 1 billion people globally,suffer from some kind of disability(‘Inclusive Financial Services’…).

Who are the disabled?

‘Persons with sensory, cognitive, mobilityand psychosocial disabilities,’ (United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities).

A 2005 study by Handicap International revealed that less than 1% of clients of microfinance institutions, dedicated to serving the world’s financially excluded persons, were persons with disabilities (ibid, p6).

Such exclusion reflects existing biases that predate the introduction of ICTs in financial services. Traditionally, bank branches are not designed to deal with disabled or elderly clients.Disabled and elderly clients have become marginalised segments “through a mix of inaccessibility, presumptions of limited needs, and capacity to manage finances, and mindsets that did not view them as a profitable consumer base,” (ibid, p2).

In many countries, persons with disabilities are not permitted to open accounts, handle money, use electronic online money or make important financial decisions independently. As in the case of the gender gap, this is also a hangover of stigma and prejudice from the brick-and-mortar “paper-based” tradition.

A high number of persons with disabilities -- some 80% of the total -- live in developing countries. The developed world, for its part, has a rapidly ageing population with high disposable incomes and difficulties in accessing financial services (ibid, p14).

Since the aged constitute a valuable client base and market for savings it is not surprising that western countries have introduced legislations that mandate easier access for disabled and senior citizens.

Policy and disability

In 2006, the United Nations adopted a Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities(called Convention) that was signed by 159 countries and ratified by 151 countries by the end of 2014.

The basic thrust of the charter is to treat disabled persons as “subjects” with rights, rather than objects of charity or special medical attention. Article 5 states that member parties should undertake legislation to protect and endorse those rights, which many developed countries have mandated.

In the US, Canada and Australia, legislationson easy accessibility for the disabled and elderly do exist. “However the problem arises at the implementation level,” (ibid, p52).

In a survey of global financial institutions by G3ict in 2013, more than 90%of respondents expressed satisfaction with access avenues for the disabled. Yet in a private study in Canada not much later, more than 50%of users who were low-income, disabled or elderly appeared disgruntled with the services (ibid, p41).

It’s a similar scenario in developing countries.The report notes:“In several economically weaker countries (like India), though guidelines have been formulated they are often not followed by banks because of their perceived non-crucial nature” (ibid, p52).

In short, there is a wide gap between legislation mandating requirements and voluntary efforts by financial institutions to meet those mandates.

One of the main reasons for the gap between legislation and practice is the absence of reasonably standardised data on accessibility for the disabled.

Only 9%of the “state parties” (to the UN Convention)havesuch data. One of the inferences the report draws is that countries with data available to the general public are more likely to have access services for the disabled than countries that do not have such data (ibid, p31).

Crossing lines: From poverty to empowerment

Finally, has the internet helped developing nations alleviate poverty in general? In what can only be described as prescient, Tim Berners-Lee, founder of the world wide web, is believed to have said:

“The world’s urban poor and the illiterate are going to be increasingly disadvantaged and are in danger of being left behind. The web has added a new dimension between the first world and the developing world. We have to start talking of a human right to connect.”  

Some scholars set out to investigate this issue of poverty reduction and the internet through case studies from several Latin American countries (‘The Internet and Poverty: Opening the Black Box’, July2014). The authors do not view poverty as a matter of income below a certain threshold alone but as an absence of “other non-monetary endowments”as well(ibid,p19). Poverty is multidimensional. It involves low monetary means and a lack of endowments that make for wellbeing--health, education and social awareness, and access to information and knowledge that can influence the delivery of public goods or governance.

So, how does broadband help the “growth effect”?

The authors visit Ecuador. Till 2007, on account of a lack of infrastructure, with undersea cables bypassing the country on the western coast in favour of Columbia, broadband was “the most expensive in the region” (34). Then, in that year, undersea cables were extended to the country and a programme of extending connectivity began, so that in five years Ecuador inched close to the regional average for broadband services.But it is still behind leaders like Uruguay and Chile. As the authors point out, typically as in the rest of Latin America in general, “penetration levels remain very low in the more isolated and poorer regions,” (ibid, p36).

Has extension of the internet helped increase growth, employment and reduce poverty?

Findings (for the period 2009-11) showed that broadband availability raised income for the entire area “regardless of adoption (of internet)”.But those who used broadband had higher incomes of around 8% over the two-year period (40). In large part this is because of the growth effect, where broadband helps firms increase productivity, makes markets more transparent and calibrates labour supply with demand.

The education effect: School connectivityin Chile

For over two decades,Chile has been promoting ICT in schools. In 1992, ENLACES began as a pilot programme offering PCs to schools and creating a network of schoolchildren and teachers. It was expanded to several different programmes, two prominent onesbeing Funds for Broadband and ICT in the Classroom.

The Funds programme was designed to subsidise public schools and private schools that received state funding. The plan was ambitions, but by 2010, 4,300 of 9,130 schools had received subsidies(ibid, p52).

The second programme, ICT in the Classroom, was meant to upgrade teacher training through hardware and software. Implemented between 2007 and 2011 it was to cover 16,000 classrooms with a “kit” consisting of “a notebook computer, a multimedia projector,audio equipment and a retractable screen”.

The results were not very encouraging. “Overall…the two programmes had a very small impact on student learning in math and language” (ibid, p53).Socio-economic variables such as parents’ incomes and education levels influenced test scores, with more privileged children doing better (ibid, p55).

Inclusion effect: Building capabilities among the poor of Mexico

The authors studied low-income communities to see how broadband could help build social inclusion among the poor. They looked at three communities: one in a remote rural region, one in a semi-rural region, and the third in a semi-urban region.

They used what they call the “livelihoods approach”. This approach “conceives ICT as a tool to strengthen a wide range of social and politicalassets that contribute to the wellbeing of the poor”(ibid, p83).

The three communities had varying degrees of ICT access: the remote community had none, the semi-rural one had fixed shared access as well as a mobile banking service with local voice and text messaging. The third had all the ICT services close to a high-income urban community(ibid, p83).

The authors found that the key benefit of the internet was access to information. But it needed to be “accompanied by capacity-building initiatives”.

Existing beliefs about usability of the Net varied and influenced adoption: in the rural unconnected community, locals had strong beliefs in the benefits of the Net. Once the Net becomes available, it was said, it can be used for a limited purpose. Another strong belief wasthat ICT is good for education of the young. In short, it was believed that the internet would benefit the young the most.

However, when training was imparted about using the Net to learn about the functionings of government, social programmes or business-related issues, awareness about its usefulness and usage rose significantly (ibid, p84).

It was also found that parents, especially from poor regions with low incomes and weak access to local governments, tended to see the Net as a way out for their young, as a social mobility facilitator.

In short, the “comparison of communities with different modes of access highlights the transformative role of training in changing previous beliefs about ICT” (ibid, p84).

Importantly, the study emphasises the need for information intermediaries or “infomediaries” to build capacities and influencethe adoption of ICT. It also reveals that family members can often play this role (ibid, p85).

Acquiring skills through training can help marginalised communities gain new information, new skills and thus strengthen their “human, social and financial assets” (ibid, p87).

Inclusion effect of broadband: Public awareness

Can broadband services make public institutions and governance more responsive to public pressures, particularly the needs of the poor? The authors looked at this question again from microperspectives, not large-scale political upheavals, and found clearer cause and effect links between broadband and public awareness.

ICT helped make public institutions more transparent, thereby reducing corruption and improving allocation of public resources.It also helped in political mobilisation and engagement that “threatens political elites and leads to more responsive governments,” (ibid, p31).

In Brazil, public disclosures of corruption in the local media and online encouraged voters to punish incumbents to Brazil’s Congress by rejecting them in the next elections. In Mexico, similar information on corrupt politicians led voters to stay away from the political process (ibid, pp31-2).

The authors cite other studies to illustrate how public disclosures of corrupt practices helped increase funding for schools in Uganda; other authors are cited to show how similar disclosures about poor quality of health services in some communities in Uganda compared to other communities led to upgrades. While such disclosures were made through traditional means (leaflets, etc) the authors point to how ICT would have a greater impact.

But they also offer the caveat that such public disclosures make a difference only if the affected poor are able to engage in collective action for change and better governance. They cite a report from Indonesia where public disclosures on corruption were less effective than traditional “top-down monitoring of contracts”. Not only is collective action difficult to organise but local elites are able to trump any proposed changes” (ibid, p32).


Twenty years of innovation and the explosion of data certainly provide the platform for improvements in the lives of poor people. Broadband helps give sustainable development more teeth. The idea of poverty as something more than just thresholds of incomes, as deprivations or lack of entitlements across a range of goods and services can be addressed through the intervention of ICT.

But as various studies and reports have shown, the delivery of its promise remains far from satisfactory, be it in the field of gender disparities, accessibility for the disabled, or social inclusion.As the Latin American experiences reveal, for the potential to be realised, for marginalised peoples to find their voice and means for a more sustainable life, training in uses of the Net and the ability to act collectively for the social good isa vital accompaniment to the promise that the Net holds out for a more equitable and inclusive society.

AshoakUpadhyay is a writer and journalist who has been commenting on public policy for three decades in major print media. In October 2013 his debut novel, ‘The Hungry Edge' was published. He is working on his second, part of a trilogy on The Indian Comedy. He continues to comment on public policy.


  1. ‘The Connected World: The Internet Economy in the G20’, Boston Consulting Group (BCG) Report, March 2012.
  2. ‘State of Broadband: 2014. Broadband for All’.Accessed at
  3. ‘Inclusive Financial Services for Seniors and Persons with Disabilities. Global Trends in Accessibility Requirements’. February 2015. Accessed from
  4. UNESCO’s EFA Global Monitoring Report:2013-14. ‘Teaching and Learning:Achieving Quality for All’.
  5. EFA Global Monitoring Report:2013-14. ‘Teaching and Learning:Achieving Quality for All’.
  6. ‘Doubling Digital Opportunities: Enhancing the Inclusion of Women and Girls in the Information Society’. Broadband Commission (2013). Accessed  at:
  7. ‘Inclusive Financial Services for Seniors and Persons with Disabilities. Global Trends in Accessibility Requirements’. February 2015. Accessed from
  8. ‘The Internet and Poverty: Opening the Black Box’.July2014. IDRC/CRDI. Accessed at ), June 2015

Leave a comment