We are in the midst of the largest information and communications revolution in human history. Over 40% of the global population has internet access, and every day brings new users. Similarly, in almost seven of every ten households in the poorest 20% of the population there is a cell phone. Indeed, the world’s poorest households are more likely to have access to a cell phone than to a toilet or clean drinking water.
The World Bank’s “Digital Dividends” report suggests that it is the traditional challenges to development that are preventing the digital revolution from revealing its full transformational potential.
For many people, the current growth in access to digital technologies is expanding the available options and making a range of activities easier. Through inclusion, efficiency, and innovation, access to these technologies is providing opportunities that were previously beyond the reach of the poor and the most disadvantaged sectors.
In Kenya, for example, the cost of sending remittances has been reduced by up to 90% since the introduction of the online payment system M-Pesa. New technologies facilitate women’s participation in the labor market, whether as e-commerce entrepreneurs or through online work or the outsourcing of operational processes.
The one billion people with disabilities around the world (80% of whom live in developing countries) can lead more productive lives with the aid of text-, voice-, or video-based communication tools. Furthermore, digital identification systems can expand access to public and private services for the 2.4 billion people who lack formal identification documents such as birth certificates.
Although this is a major step forward, many are still left behind because they do not have access to digital technologies. Those living in extreme poverty stand to benefit the most from improvements to communications and wider-spread access to information. Almost six billion people do not have access to high-speed internet, which prevents them from fully participating in the digital economy.
To achieve universal access to these technologies, the report calls for investment in infrastructure and the implementation of reforms to generate greater competition in the telecommunications markets and promote public-private partnerships in the context of effective regulation.
To make the benefits of the transformation in information and communications a reality, countries need to improve their business climate, invest in the education and health of their populations, and promote good governmental practices.
Those countries that complement investments in technology with wider economic reforms reap digital dividends in the form of greater growth, more employment, and better services.