Closing the Global Digital Divide: The Significance of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) to Emerging Economies

Author: Ruchi Gupta, Research Intern Summer 2021, Center For Strategic and International Studies

Credit: ipopba/Adobe Stock

Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) – broadly encompassing telecommunications, mobile telephony, big data, and the internet – have permeated most aspects of life by providing newer and quicker ways for people to interact, gain access to information, and learn. A World Economic Forum report reveals that an increase in the digitization of a country by 10 percent fuels a 0.75 percent increase in GDP per capita, and a 1.02 percent drop in the unemployment rate. With applications in education, medicine, banking,  governance and e-commerce, ICTs are a key driver of economic growth and productivity, especially in developing countries, connecting people to valuable services and jobs, and allowing businesses to conduct their operations. Instrumental in this digital transformation journey of the developing world are some of the international entities like the World Bank, Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), World Health Organization (WHO), among others that are supporting ICT implementation and the development of a pro-competitive policy and regulatory environment for the ICT sector.

ICTs can be hugely transformative in developing countries. For instance, an interactive geospatial ICT map is helping Mexico deliver financial inclusivity by pinpointing gaps and providing bank accounts to its ‘unbanked’ citizens, similar to the launch of micropayments via mobile phones in Kenya and Tanzania that greatly reduced the cost of banking services and transactional burdens. The introduction of mHealth (mobile health) applications in developing countries such as Cape Verde resulted in more accessible, affordable, and higher quality healthcare services. Farmers in Mozambique are able to send information about leaf damage to authorities through a mobile phone app and monitor the presence of an invasive pest threatening farm revenue and food security. Investing in ICT infrastructure is currently a top agenda for policy makers in most developing countries and those yet to establish an ICT ecosystem stand to be deprived of economic acceleration and digitization benefits. It will not be wrong to say that international organizations within this ecosystem – both those who set regulations and standards, and those that help in hard infrastructure –are perhaps more critical than ever as they are endowed with substantial resources to help build a robust ICT ecosystem for digitally constrained economies.

The Role of the ITU in the Digital Revolution: Global ICT Standards, E-health, and Online Learning

An organization that sits on the forefront of the digital revolution is the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). As the United Nation’s specialized agency for ICTs, the ITU works at the nexus of digital connectivity and sustainable development, and supports developing countries to fully expand ICTs, as they respond to and recover from the pandemic, while building preparedness for future global emergencies. With the upcoming election of its leader in 2022 – i.e., the Secretary General – the future state of ITU will play an intricate role for the future of ICTs in the developing world. While many policy papers have examined the role of the United States in the ITU, it is also important to understand the organization from the perspective of the developing world. The stakes for the ITU are particularly high, especially as progress on ICTs has not been equitable across the world due to lack of physical infrastructure, weak access and affordability to power and other public services, inadequate regulatory frameworks and policies, and poor literacy and digital skills of the population. These supply and demand gaps have led to startling digital inequalities between the developed and developing countries- while in advanced economies close to 87 percent of the population is connected to the internet, only 47 percent of people in developing nations are online. In the poorest countries, this figure plummets to just 19 percent of people connected.

Overall, 3.7 billion people (almost 50 percent of the world) remain offline, unable to take advantage of the transformative power of ICTs.

To bridge the staggering digital divide which has been further exposed by the Covid-19 pandemic, the ITU is enabling ICT infrastructure in e-health, e-learning, e-governance, and e-commerce. Additionally, the tools to shape future ICT governance and global standards provided by the organization are vital for the forward movement of the digital regulatory cursor. Particularly suited to lead in the development of telecommunication and ICT networks 2030 Agenda is the ITU-D (Telecommunication Development Sector), one of three main bureaus within the organization. As digital transformation continues to pose challenges for regulatory structures traditionally organized on a sectoral basis, policymakers can benefit from the interdisciplinary gold standard best practices provided by the ITU-D for policy, legal, regulatory, as well as on economic and financial issues and market developments. A strong partnership between ITU, U.S. companies and policymakers of emerging economies can create tremendous potential for interoperability and harness the ICT enablers necessary to navigate the digital transformation journey. Reinforcing ICTs particularly in the field of remote learning and telemedicine can prove to be giant leaps in the health and education sectors.

ITU can be a leader in expanding e-health technologies…

E-Health technologies are significantly relevant for developing countries, where access to quality healthcare facilities are lacking. Nearly half of the global population  still lives in rural communities that have historically struggled with healthcare access and infrastructure challenges. Health care services like clinical care, diagnostics, electronic patient monitoring and access to medical information can be provided through ICT applications like telemedicine, e-health, and m-health that are a cost-effective way to deliver healthcare in these underserved communities. For instance, research conducted on e-health technology in Sub-Saharan Africa demonstrated how patient identification, financial management and structured reporting improved dramatically after implementing well-adapted ICT tools in a set of 19 African health facilities. E-health standardization policy guidelines and adoption of emerging technology trends, notably big data and Artificial Intelligence provided by ITU-D are helping develop a secure health ecosystem with provider-patient connectedness, asset tracking, and regulatory compliance.

Countries like Ghana currently lack adequate cutting-edge research to guide decision making and policy implementation for effective allocation of national resources.

It is crucial to note that some of the most significant challenges of e-health delivery for many low- and medium-income (LMIC) countries are poor ICT infrastructure (patchy broadband coverage), non-standardized, fragmented health information systems with limited interoperability, high cost of acquisition, lack of technical skills, and lack of public trust towards the privacy and security of medical data. ITU can essentially play a lead role in overriding social, legal, and ethical barriers to e-health implementation, alongside identifying a roadmap to overcome obstacles in the health informatics landscape. On the other hand, involving the ITU in the process of crafting their national e-health strategies can help governments of developing countries tailor the ICT structural reforms to their unique health priority areas, simultaneously as they are being strategized, developed, and deployed.

…And the ITU can help close the global literacy gap with online education

E-learning platforms as rational, cost-effective means of continued education came under spotlight with the disruption of the traditional educational pedagogy due to COVID-19, when schools for more than 168 million children globally were completely closed for almost a full year. It is estimated that over 100 million additional children will fall below the minimum proficiency level in reading as a result of the health crisis. A recent OECD report estimates the societal cost of school closures to be a 1.5% lower global GDP for the next century, with a deeper impact on disadvantaged students.

Going forward, governments and education institutions need to invest not only in the technical infrastructure at a student’s home, but also the right digital pedagogical skills. At the heart of this is ensuring reliable and uninterrupted access to the Internet.

While for some countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, the pandemic accelerated their adoption of ICT services for online learning, emerging economies that have not yet implemented online education need to draw on the action lines provided by ITU bureaus to invest in the right ICT mix to continue to educate their next generation. For instance, in Jakarta, poor internet connection and lack of digital device accessibility are still impeding online learning for half of its student population, as the pandemic havoc continues. The ITU can potentially play the central role of a leveler in closing the global literacy gap through e-learning technologies, currently hindered due to poor quality of connectivity, lack of digital skills and devices, and bad regulatory choices. ITU-D is not only helping in bridging the digital gender divide, it is also leveraging the power of public-private partnerships that can work wonders in the education sector. For instance, in India, the state government of Karnataka equipped seven hundred schools with ICT labs through partnership with a private computer institute in an astonishingly short timeframe of forty-five days!

ITU Towards Fifth Generation Technology and beyond

Anytime from 2025 onwards, the number of connected devices on the Internet is projected to reach 50 billion. The deployment of 5G is a priority to meet the growing demand of connectivity, flexibility, and resiliency requirements, more so in the post-pandemic world. For countries like India, 5G is key to its digital ambitions, with industry-wide applications in agriculture, education, health, transportation, and most importantly – the Internet of Things (IoT).

Emerging economies currently shaping their next generation of telecommunication and cellular technologies including the 5G ecosystem are face tasked with choices of radio spectrum, selection of equipment suppliers, potential issues over public health, as well as its real level of industrial and consumer demand.

Guiding the evolution of 3G and 4G standards, the ITU will continue to play a pivotal role in developing globally applicable 5G standards, stable international regulations, sufficient spectrum for 5G, and the core network to enable successful 5G deployments at the regional and international levels, allowing countries to rapidly expand their digital technology and process very high volumes of data with minimal delay.

Looking Ahead: A Happy Marriage between the ITU and Emerging Economies

A strong partnership between ITU and its member states should ensure emerging economies have access to tailored assistance to promote confidence​ in the use of ICTs, while building their human and institutional capacity for the next generation of technologies. An important component of this partnership will be the ITU-SG 2022 elections- the organization needs a leader with democratic principles, one that can foster international cooperation and help countries close the digital divide with open and transparent internet governance. Governments of developing countries also need to do their part. For the seamless transition to a sustainable digital economy, governments should essentially focus on:

  • Infrastructure: Allocate adequate resources to boost internet access, affordability, and quality, fortified with secure, reliable internet governance, data regulations, and standardization frameworks, while prioritizing cybersecurity and data protection of citizens
  • Regulation: Establishing local governmental regulators with the scientific know-how and capabilities for collaborative cross-sectoral regulation, while safeguarding consumers
  • Environment: Create a holistic culture of change, information sharing, trust, and acceptance for digital tools and technology through digital skills training to enable capital development across all ICT work areas; develop policies to promote digital innovation and market creation
  • Stakeholders: Develop multistakeholder partnerships with ITU (and thereby with its gamut of member countries, regulators, and private sector players) driven by common goals, to create a coherent convergence of multiple initiatives for a digital ecosystem

Galvanizing efforts towards these goals will ensure the movement of digital inclusivity from vision to action. Failure to do so may exacerbate the current digital inequities and undermine the economic prospects of the developing world, leaving them behind in this era of digital revolution. More so, absence of a robust regulatory framework could result in opaque regulators gaining foothold in resource rich but economically poor countries with debt-trap policies, to eventually colonize them digitally. As the agency that is responsible for closing the digital divide, ITU’s policies, strategies, programming, and technical support on telecommunication and ICT development issues are significant. Pairing this huge potential of ITU with emerging economies is the way going forward and can be a transformational force to advance global development by leaps and bounds.

Ruchi Gupta was a Summer 2021 Research Intern for the Project of Prosperity and Development at the Center For Strategic and International Studies.  She has previously worked in the public and private sectors in India and the U.S and has a media and technology background. She did her MBA in Business Leadership and Marketing from the University of Notre Dame and is a current MPPA candidate at the University of St. Thomas.