Mind the gap – how to avoid the digital divide so transformation benefits all

October 7, 2021

Last year a whole generation of children in Serbia were enlisted in kindergartens electronically. Three things made this happen – 1) decent telecommunications infrastructure and wide availability of mobile internet, 2) existence of the public e-Kindergarten service and 3) the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the onset of the pandemic, having a reliable internet connection is a lifeline. We worked, educated our children, bought and sold things and kept in touch with our loved ones online.

Those of us with good internet, electronic devices and proficient in using digital tools were fortunate.

The benefits of digital transformation are undeniable. It is an important accelerator for attainment of all Sustainable Development Goals, which seek to build a better future for everyone. As we leverage the power of tech to reach these goals, we must put people first and always keep at the forefront of our minds those on the margins.

The gap between people in access to digital infrastructure, ability to afford digital devices and services and digital literacy hampers the growth of the economy and society, and now, even employment. New types of jobs are created, while obliterating the need for others. As UNDP Accelerator Labs’ report shows, many people are at risk of losing their jobs, and those already disadvantaged are most at risk.

Who is left behind in Serbia?

When COVID-19 hit Serbia, the school system quickly switched to remote schooling. As the UN and UNDP’s Socio-economic impact assessment showed, 98% of pupils in primary and secondary education used digital learning platforms.

However, Roma children, children with disabilities and children from other vulnerable groups, such as refugees, had problems in attending school. 17% of Roma and 4% of students with disabilities did not attend any elementary school classes. Only 56% of Roma children followed online and TV classes, mostly because they lacked internet access and electronic devices.

The Statistical Office of the Republic of Serbia data for 2020 shows that access to internet and computer ownership drops for those with lower income and living in rural areas.

A big difference comes with age too, as, when asked if they used a computer in the last 3 months, all young women and men between 16 and 24 years of age - said ‘yes’, compared to only 49% of women and 59% of men over 55.

COVID-19, in a sense, exposed these differences and showed just how important it is to mind the digital gap.

Steps in the right direction

Over the past few years, Serbia has made significant strides in e-government and support for IT entrepreneurship with initiatives from the Ministry of Trade, Tourism and Telecommunications and the Office for IT and e-Government.

The Ministry of Trade has created a detailed map of the national internet infrastructure, begun construction of rural broadband network and adopted a national plan for developing digital skills. The Ministry of Education introduced digital literacy as an obligatory subject in all primary schools, from the 1st grade.

The Office for IT and e-Government is now tailoring digital services to their end-users, including the more disadvantaged ones. This inclusive and user-focused approach was best seen through the vaccination process in Serbia, made possible by user-friendly digital solutions and communication with citizens through different channels – via phone, e-mail and SMS.

In order to inform the Roma population about importance of COVID-19 immunization and facilitate their vaccine registration online, the Association of Youth Volunteers of Serbia, founded by young Roma UN volunteers, led an outreach campaign and visited the inhabitants of informal Roma settlements in 18 towns and municipalities in Serbia.

UNDP support

UNDP has supported the government's ambitious digitalization agenda from the beginning, from Open Data and IT retraining to the establishment of the Data Center, and improvement of public e-services so that they are inclusive and respond to the needs of the citizens and businesses.

For example, we made sure that persons with disabilities are included as participants of the national IT retraining programme and ensured that information about the vaccines and registration for getting a shot - are equally available to everyone, including vulnerable Roma and people with visual impairments.  We helped introduce ‘text to speech’ functionality for all government web sites, to assists the visually impaired to access the official sources of information.

We also work with the private sector and civil society to leverage the power of digital tools for social good. UNDP partnered with Delhaize, the largest retail chain in the country, and the Food Bank, to scale up food donations through a digital platform. Delhaize has now increased the volume of donated food from 280 tonnes in six months in 2020 - to 304.1 tonnes in the same period this year.

While digital technologies bring many benefits, we should be mindful of risks and dangers online. Privacy concerns, data theft and fake news impact all of us. However, online bulling and digitally altered images and videos projecting unrealistic pictures of the world are particularly dangerous for young people.

UNDP Serbia is focused on increasing digital literacy for all, young and old. A ‘digital expedition’ is on the road as I write, visiting cities and municipalities across the country to help people learn how to use government e-services, e-commerce opportunities and protect themselves online. We’ve also helped elderly people acquire the skills and equipment they need to connect to the world and benefit from new technologies, partnering with the government and USAID.

Caravan "Digital expedition" in city of Smederevo.

What else can be done?

We still need to do much more to build a society that is inclusive by default, not just digital by default. Digital inclusion should be part of any new public initiative from day one. Here are the six improvements that could be made:

1.        Make available digital infrastructure and opportunities in small towns and rural areas, which in turn can help tackle depopulation of rural areas and emigration.

2.      Build links between initiatives across ministries, so that the digital divide is tackled in a holistic way.

3.      Consider subsidizing the purchase of essential ICT equipment and wider accessibility of telecommunication services offering internet packages with larger data and bandwidth allowances for the whole family, for all people in need, regardless of their location. Also, when designing digital solutions, have women in mind, as the biggest users of e-services in Serbia.

4.      Provide more support for the private sector to move online. Research has shown that almost 50% of companies in Serbia switched to online business during the first wave of the COVID-19 crisis, while today only 14% of companies recognize digitalization as the key for their development.

5.      Keep upgrading the skills of public sector workers, so they are able to make government services more user-centric.

6.      Adapt legislation to ensure decent work conditions for those employed in the gig economy. A recent research supported by UNDP showed that digital platforms do not provide health or social coverage for the people who work for them.

As former UN Secretary General stated: A society is judged by treatment of its weakest, most vulnerable members. If solidarity is not motivation enough to help those threatened by the advancement of technology, there are compelling economic and security reasons for doing so. Deepening of inequalities can lead to migration, depopulation, and conflict, hampering development.

This is why we will continue to support government, corporate and civil sector initiatives that promote inclusivity and help Serbia avoid the trap of the digital gap.