If everyone had Internet access, then everyone would have a fair shot at financial stability and an education, right?
If only it were so easy.
On Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim led a meeting of some of the top minds in global development to talk about the U.S. State Department’s Global Connect Initiative. The goal: to get 1.5 billion people online by 2020.
With private sector giants such as PayPal, representatives from 28 countries, and multilateral institutions gathered in the same room, hitting that mark seemed attainable.
“Internet is essential to economic prosperity in the 21st century,” said Kerry. Examples of the boons that connectivity brings are endless, like children gaining access to an education through distance learning. “The bottom line is that investment in the Internet is investment in people,” said Kerry. “But we are not taking full advantage of all that connectivity affords. That’s the irony. Out of five people, three are without Internet access. In the poorest countries, that divide can top 95%. That’s unacceptable.”
In conflict-ridden countries, global leaders must not just make sure that the “bombs and bullets” stop, Kerry said. “We have to create opportunities for the billions of kids around the world who need a future. If we do not, then we will only create additional crises. If we do this right, (connectivity) can be as powerful a tool as anything we have at our disposal.”
But pulling together the funds to create digital connectivity to everyone is just part of the solution, Kim said. The other part is to make sure people know how to use it.
“Two things we know for sure will be needed: connectivity for everyone and also the ability of people to engage in that new digital world,” Kim said. “We have to move quickly on connectivity, but we have to move equally as fast in making sure that people are able to take advantage of that connectivity.”
Finance ministers play a critical role in connecting the unconnected, said Kim. Where the ICT sector is taxed at rates significantly higher than other services, governments need to ensure more reasonable and predictable tax levels. They should also make sure that funds set aside to bring telecom services to remote areas are spent for that purpose. Finance ministers can also help promote better communication and interoperability between administrations’ information technology systems, Kim said.
Financial inclusion was another topic that representatives around the table brought up. “It’s expensive to be poor,” said Daniel Schulman, CEO of PayPal. “In the U.S., it can cost 2 to 5% just to cash a check. If you need a loan, you can use payday loans, who can charge up 200-300% interest. Democratizing financial services is crucial. Managing money should be a right for all citizens, not a privilege for the affluent. This is not just a noble goal, but an attainable one.”
The Mozilla Foundation, a non-profit organization, is a big proponent of open source code as well. The more knowledge is shared, the more connectivity reaches people all over the world, the greater chances marginalized populations have at leveling the playing field, too. Women and young people have a better chance at getting an education, starting their own businesses and doing mobile banking.
“In 2003, half a billion people were connected to the internet,” said Sarah Raskin of the U.S. Treasury Department. “By 2010, 12.5 billion devices were connected. In five years, predictions are that 50 billion devices will be connected.”
With digital connectivity, universality isn’t the only end game, but also tapping into the talent and the passion of people around the world who are already working on innovative solutions to various issues.
“Investment should be in talent, not just people,” said Megan Smith, chief technology officer in President Obama’s Office of Science and Technology Policy and a former Google vice president. At yesterday’s White House Science Fair, she noted, one teenager developed a test that can detect Ebola in a matter of minutes instead of days. “We received 800 submissions from people who’ve thought of innovative solutions to the SDGs,” said Smith. “Connectivity isn’t just about equity. It’s about unlocking the talent of the world, of passionate people.”
Bringing universal digital connectivity to everyone is a challenge with many angles. It’ll take everyone’s help, from finance ministers to private sector companies to entrepreneurs, to make it happen. “We need to widen the circle of digital opportunity and ensure that fewer global neighbors are left behind,” said Kerry.
“A decade or two ago, the World Bank Group and other development partners actively promoted the mobile phone revolution,” said Pierre Guislain, the World Bank's Transport and ICT Global Practice senior director. “Today, we need a similar deliberate, purposeful, ambitious approach to unleash the potential of the Internet and of the digital age in developing countries.”