Attending virtual climate talks, a luxury or right? Globally, 3.6 billion people remain offline today, with the majority of them in underdeveloped countries.
With the closure of international borders and the ongoing lockdown, the Covid-19 pandemic has forced us to stay indoors and embrace remote working arrangements using various virtual video conferencing tools.
Worldwide, people now rely more on Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) to adapt to the evolving uncertainty and operate with minimal disruption. The new digital society provides an efficient medium for communication while maintaining social distance, but it has made digital divide more pronounced than ever amid the global lockdown.
Experts are concerned that in the current circumstances, where over 46 percent of the world population remains without technology or internet access, this digital divide could grow wider. Globally, 3.6 billion people remain offline today, with the majority of them in underdeveloped countries.
The situation is much worse in Least Developed Countries (LDC’s) where access to the internet is very challenging. Given the impediments posed by the pandemic and online access being the main way to stay connected, the question remains which communities have the tools to survive this pandemic. Covid-19 is further amplifying the already existing disparities in digital learning, and distance education in the poorer countries and impoverished households.
This unprecedented crisis poses an immediate threat to inclusiveness and in turn widening the inequality gap further. Despite having an impressive lead in bridging the digital divide, the precarious access to ICTs by grassroot communities and organizations in different parts of the world still remains a challenge.
Not only the virtual platforms are giving us a social gateway, these have also been recruited to disseminate accurate information related to the pandemic. As a result, those having no/poor access to digital technologies largely fall behind in the race to access accurate information. This is critical especially in light of the many misinformation and fake news about Covid-19.
Differential access to ICTs across many dimensions including gender, age and socio-economic position continues to hinder meaningful participation in the digital world. As many grassroot communities still don’t have access to electricity, having high speed internet connections to attend talks, webinars or even classes have become a mere luxury for those people.
The issues of connectivity, time zones, technical limitations and difficulties in interacting online further perpetuate the challenges. This striking contradiction is only building on pre-existing inequalities among communities on the matters of income, access to services, utilities, living and working conditions, access to social protection and quality education.
Climate action and digital divide
The digital divide also has an impact on the ability of developing countries in dealing with the impact of climate change. Bangladesh is well-known to be an adaptation champion and having been doing exceedingly well in sharing experiential knowledge from grassroots to global level.
While the networks and federations of the grassroot communities and organizations have been proved to be successful in dealing with crisis, it is getting increasingly difficult for them to maintain relations with the newly imposed notion of online meetings. We the privileged ones are constantly meeting online and doing business. But the grassroots organizations which also intend to be part of these global discussions are not being able to do so based on social, economic and geographical barriers. This again leads to the exclusion of voices of the vulnerable who can’t access and afford ICT services.
Covid-19 induced digital divide may also result in additional power asymmetry between developed and developing countries. Digital negotiations through climate talks, summit or conferences may continue in the post Covid-19 world at least for a few years leading to more and more exclusion and unheard voices. Besides, this could also hamper international cooperation and trust especially among LDCs which are fostered through face-to-face diplomacy.
Youths on the other hand have been proved to be very successful in raising their voice in social media against climate change. Much of the climate protest movement that attracted millions was built through social media. But with the new notion of online presence, youths in developing countries are facing a huge pressure for being online both for academic and social advocacy purposes.
As a result, they are facing challenges in affording expensive internet packages for videoconferencing as well as in managing time to be part of climate talks. Besides, availing the online meeting platforms such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams etc are also beyond the affordability of most young people living in remote areas.
Tackling the digital divide
It is imperative to look beyond Covid-19 and envision changes to create a resilient and just society and better new normal in the face of future crises such as climate change. Tackling climate change will take an array of resources, access to the internet is definitely one of them which will allow us to connect, share information and build collective resilience in the years to come. To bring positive changes, all the stakeholders- government, private sectors, academics, civil society need to collaborate in redesigning the existing model.
In general, policy makers can ensure universal access to ICTs by removing barriers, while the private- sector, civil society and individuals need to make policies work. The private sectors and service providers can bring in innovative ideas regarding provision of affordable access and various options for different income groups in all geographical capacities.
Academia and civil societies can play a crucial role in capacity building especially for vulnerable groups in acquiring digital skills. Global donors as well as national investors should also make more and more investments to boost our efforts to close the digital divide and make the internet universal, affordable, open, and safe.
Shahrin currently works as a Senior Research Officer at the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD). Her research interest lies in community resilience building, gender and climate change, and sustainable development.