Every year on May 17th, World Telecommunication and Information Society Day (WTISD) recognizes the importance of information and communication technologies (ICTs), and the wide range of issues present in today’s information society. First celebrated in 1969, WTISD is an initiative of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) aiming to raise awareness of the possibilities that the use of ICTs can bring to societies and economies. This year’s WTISD theme focuses on “Empowering the least developed countries through information and communication technologies”.
The least developed countries (LDCs) are one of the world’s greatest untapped resources, whose needs must be addressed to achieve the UN’s SDGs, and attain universal meaningful connectivity. The 46 current LDCs comprise around 880 million people, or 12% of the world population, yet only account for 2% of world GDP. About one third of the 2.7 billion people who remain unconnected to the Internet are in the LDCs.
Over the past decade, the connectivity challenge has become more complex and demanding. Bringing everyone online is no longer enough. Meaningful connectivity—the possibility to enjoy a safe, quality, and productive online experience at an affordable cost—is the new imperative. For LDCs, this remains a major challenge. To read more about meaningful connectivity, see our recent interview on digital inclusion with the Good Things Foundation.
Network readiness in the LDCs
ICT infrastructure is the key for providing Internet access and enabling digital services and online content for citizens, businesses and governments. In LDCs, mobile broadband is sometimes the only way to connect to the Internet, yet only 83% of the combined LDC population is covered by a mobile broadband signal (compared with 95% of the world population). More recently, LDCs have benefitted from the deployment of submarine and overland cables and satellite links. However, connection and access are only prerequisites for using the Internet: in LDCs, 47% of the population has access to the Internet but does not use it. This usage gap is a reminder that other barriers besides access stand in the way of connectivity.
One such barrier is affordability. The cost of accessing the Internet is greater in LDCs than anywhere else in the world. As a percentage of their GNI, people in LDCs pay ten times more for their mobile broadband data than people in developed countries. Factors such as geographic conditions, uneven population distribution, and low levels of disposable income deter investments in network deployment, while high prices deter new subscribers.
While infrastructure and affordability are important supply-side factors, knowledge of how to use the Internet and digital technologies remains a demand-side constraint. Lack of digital literacy is increasingly emerging as a leading barrier to Internet use in many LDCs. Digital skill levels are closely linked to educational attainment—making the focus on enrollment rates and linkage of education and ICT sector policies all the more critical.
It is important to note that digital contexts vary regionally across the group of LDCs, as well as within countries. For example, the Internet penetration rate among LDCs ranged from 6% in Burundi to 86% in Bhutan. In 2022, average Internet use among the population of LDCs in Asia & the Pacific region was 43%, while those in Africa averaged 28%.
Youth and digital transformation in the LDCs
The 2022 edition of the Network Readiness Index explored the challenges and opportunities facing younger generations in the digital era. Today, the world is home to 1.8 billion young people aged 15 to 24 years—nearly 90% of whom live in developing countries, making it critical to understand the digital contexts experienced by their segment of the population. Digital divides within these countries and regions hinder the ability of youth to meaningfully engage online. Regardless of their appetite for digital technologies, many remain unable to fully harness the opportunities brought about by the digital era.
Digital transformation for youth in LDCs resembles that of their peers in some aspects and looks different in others. Low-cost or second-hand smartphones are the most common way for youth to access the Internet, and mobile technology is becoming increasingly prevalent, even in areas of extreme poverty. The use of digital financial services has also grown exponentially. Utilizing unstructured supplementary service data (USSD) and Wi-Fi networks where available, young people are able to access social networking platforms like Facebook and Twitter. As youth everywhere, they want to connect, stay tuned in, and share their experiences.
The impact of connectivity for youth is profound and far-ranging. The Internet enables access to online services and to new forms of entertainment, expression, collaboration, and communication, as well as opportunities to engage in the digital economy and attain remote jobs that negate geographic barriers. These are major benefits for digitally native generations, who value flexible, autonomous, and impact-driven work.
While connectivity offers great opportunities, it also poses potential risks and harms for those who lack the necessary digital literacy and skills to navigate the Internet safely. Further, from an inequality standpoint, the greater the degree to which societies become connected, the more a lack of connection presents a problem.
Despite persistent challenges, the relative connectivity gap between LDCs and the world average is much smaller for younger generations than that for the whole population. As of 2022, almost half of young people (ages 15 to 24) in LDCs were online, nearly twice as many as in 2019. This greater uptake among youth means that the workforce will become more connected and technology-savvy as the young generation joins its ranks. This in turn could improve the development prospects of LDCs.
Supporting connectivity for younger generations
In designing policies that ensure digital inclusion and meaningful connectivity among young people, we must gain a deep understanding of the needs and aspirations of their generation. In recent years, many initiatives and recommendations seeking to close the digital divide and improve outcomes for youth in the digital age have been highlighted.
- Expanding digital infrastructure: Expanding broadband networks is key to eliminating remaining blind spots and improve the quality of connectivity. Collaboration between governments, businesses, and civil society, increased investment, and infrastructure sharing can help guide such development, while ensuring sufficient capacity for future shifts to new generations of mobile broadband.
- Defining localized approaches: The diversity within the group of LDCs underlines the need for flexibility in approaching the varied challenges present. The underlying conditions in each country should be fully understood to develop truly impactful policies. This is why metrics like the NRI, which allow policymakers to assess the strengths and weaknesses of their economies in a holistic manner, are important. Western-centric approaches may fail to address digital inequities rooted in the local social and structural problems that sustain inequities.
- Embedding ICT skills into the education system: When combined with educator training and careful adjustment to local circumstances and pedagogical contexts, sustained access to ICTs in educational settings can be highly beneficial for developing digital competencies. To reduce the gender gaps that remain prevalent in many LDCs, non-governmental organizations and public-private partnerships should be supported in providing mentoring and digital skills training for women and girls.
- Championing inclusive design: The design of digital products and services creates barriers to access for certain groups, such as disabled or illiterate persons. Ethical rights-based interventions and adherence to inclusivity and accessibility-centric design approaches can help prevent such discrimination.
Doing more with less
Digital transformation remains a powerful way to do more with less. The 2022 edition of the NRI identified a group of middle- and low-income economies that stand out as performing above their expected levels of development in one or more of the four pillars of the NRI. Of the 23 LDCs included in the NRI, 17 are identified as outstanding pillar performers. These observations evidence a recent “catch up” growth among developing economies.
Connectivity is indeed a great leveler, enhancing education, democratizing access to information, and empowering youth on their quest to shape the future. For LDCs, connectivity can also be a powerful means of poverty reduction. While connectivity alone cannot solve all of the challenges they are facing, investment in these young, vibrant countries on this front can drive sustainable growth for future generations.
Portulans Institute is a member of Partner2Connect Digital Coalition, a multi-stakeholder alliance launched by ITU that takes a holistic approach to catalyzing partnerships and mobilizing the resources needed to connect those who are still offline. Learn more at https://www.itu.int/itu-d/sites/partner2connect/
Learn more about the Network Readiness Index at https://networkreadinessindex.org/
Sylvie Antal is a Policy Research Associate with prior experience in digital privacy issues relating to minors and vulnerable populations, as well as in consumer education and technology for international development. She is an advocate for ethical, inclusive, and innovative solutions and policies that make digital experiences safer and more effective for all populations.
At PI, she is responsible for monitoring relevant policy developments, assisting with research, developing communication strategy and content, and coordinating the Fellowship program.
Sylvie holds a bachelor’s degree in Information Science from the University of Michigan’s School of Information, where she was a member of Tech for Social Good, and a masters degree in Human-Computer Interaction. Prior to joining Portulans, she interned at the US Federal Communications Commission, and the Family Online Safety Institute in Washington DC.