COVID-19 Underscores the Risk of the Digital Divide in the Arab States Region

April 3, 2020

From the comfort of my home in Beirut, as I connect with colleagues from Amman, New York, Cairo and Dubai, I cannot help but think how much our virtual working space has opened a whole new world of personal exchange. In the background of serious discussions, one can hear the amusing giggles (or screaming) of toddlers. But at the end of each call, I find myself swept up in a wave of ambivalent emotions as I recount my personal blessings as a working mother who with the ability to practice social distancing while still remaining professionally and socially “connected”. This stands  in sharp contrast with the experience of 50 per cent of the world population and 43 percent of the Arab States region [1], who lack internet access and thus, at present, are shut out from this universe of connection which is doing so much for those of us on the inside right now. There is also an important gender dimension, as access among women and girls lags behind that of men and boys in every country in the region for which data is available.[2]

If I were asked to pick a highly relevant sentence from the UNDP Human Development Report 2019, it would be “digital gaps can also become barriers not only in accessing services or enabling economic transactions but also in being part of a “learning society”. This sentence has simply coined what we are all experiencing in the coronavirus outbreak. If we – those who are connected – look around us to try to identify the pillars which make lockdown bearable, internet connection would be on top, along with maintaining an undisrupted income-generating activity. These two – or rather their mutual lack – have become overlapping for many.

From working-from-home modalities, remote learning for students, and e-commerce, to accessing endless articles on social distancing and other health-focused preventive measures, we realize that the COVID-19 survival kit rests on an assumption that individuals are connected online and have the skills needed to engage in the world of information.

In the Arab States region, where around 60 percent of the population is under 25, remote learning can be a luxury for many, where 48% of households do not own a computer at home.[3] This  means that at present, inequalities across the region are only growing, from an already high starting point. Indeed, the inequality-adjusted Human Development Index shows the Arab States region as having the highest degree of inequality in education.[4]

From a panoramic perspective, the battle against COVID-19 is one that has largely been fought with access to relevant and timely data. We have been witnessing a flood of dashboards that use data to monitor the outbreak, track preventive measures and stocks of food, medication and survival gear and forecast impact. Provided that personal data is well-protected, there is something comforting with these dashboards. They serve as a very personal reassurance that we humans remain in control, that we can trace the invisible and will eventually contain it. And this very personal reassurance resonates institutionally, connecting with UNDP’s Digital Strategy, which refers to digital technologies as being “immersive, context-aware and personalized”, emphasizing the importance of experience-led innovation.

And it seems that the world will be learning it the hard way this time, where the need to invest in disruptive technologies to contest the status-quo, is ever more relevant, while taking into consideration a question that the UN Secretary-General Strategy on New Technologies had posed a couple of years ago:  “how can we ensure that the voices and concerns of those who may be significantly affected by new technologies are heard, even if they are developed on the other side of the globe.” [1] Currently, those who are affected by the new technologies are those who were denied the right to be connected.

In support of UNDP’s digital strategy, the Regional Bureau for Arab States has been advocating for digital transformation, including a new data agenda, to bring in those who have been digitally or statistically left behind - an agenda that builds multidisciplinary and new partnerships and one that revisits the whole data ecosystem. The UNDP Arab Development Portal facilitates access to a multi-source database that is home to more than7,200 indicators from 96 national sources and 72 international sources. The initiative also invests in data literacy as an entry point for catalyzing evidence-based analysis and advocacy. Today, this portal acts as a one-stop-shop on the regional development impact of COVID-19 by identifying the baseline from which we are beginning to fight this crisis.

Several countries in the region have recently begun to harness digital innovation to keep people on the other side of the digital divide in view of the health radar – a capability which will be important for the tracking and tracing component of the response.

This brings us back to the cornerstone of UNDP’s thought leadership in digital development – inclusiveness. The HDR 2019 questioned whether technological transformations increased inequality, whether it had driven a “New Great Divergence”. One can hope that the current outbreak, once contained, might remind us to accelerate the “New Great Convergence” called for in United Nations General Assembly resolution in 2016:  “the promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet.”  I enjoy that right, but many do not. This right is now sustaining me through quarantine, while I hope that those digitally deprived manage somehow to stay connected to information, to society, and to the feeling of shared humanity that sustains us through this most trying time. Let this be the crisis that pushes us to do away with the digital divide.

[1] International Telecommunication Union (ITU), World Telecommunication/ICT Development Report and database. 2019 figures.

[2] ITU 2019 figures. The ITU publishes ICT statistics by gender for 13 Arab countries.

[3] ITU 2019 figures.