About 2.9 billion people are offline. This is about one-third of humanity. Countless others only enjoy basic connectivity. The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically increased the cost of digital exclusion. There exists a very close relationship between connectivity and human development, although the interdependence works both ways, connectivity drives development, and more development leads to more connectivity. It is unacceptable that vast ribbons of humanity remain digitally excluded. A nonviolent, nourishing, elevating, and affordable digital experience for everyone –  is a new imperative. Connectivity and human rights are now intertwined. It is unjustifiable that only a few would harvest the benefits of the dividends produced by the affordances of AI and the IoT.

An International Telecommunications Union (ITU) study titled, “The economic contribution of broadband, digitization and ICT regulation” (2018), notes that a 1 per cent increase in fixed broadband penetration increases GDP in a country by 0.08 per cent, while a 1 per cent increase in mobile broadband penetration increases GDP by 0.15 per cent. While the economic impact of fixed broadband is much more significant in developed economies, mobile broadband benefits are amplified in developing economies. In Africa, a 1 per cent increase in mobile penetration is estimated to increase GDP by 0.25 per cent (ITU 2019). Mobile broadband penetration in Africa increased from just under 30 per cent in 2018 to about 40 per cent in 2021 (ITU 2021), and this 10 percentage-point increase corresponds to an increase of 2.5 percentage points in GDP.

Broadband penetration has uncountable economic benefits and the potential to enhance the well-being of individuals throughout their lives. The Internet opens access to new forms of entertainment, digital humanities, services, and collaboration. It opens access to fringe activity where doubt creates new knowledge. And it offers widespread adoption of federated identity for customers and workers.

Digital identity is composed of attributes that define each citizen as a unique person navigating the sociological contours of society. Federated identity is an agreement among agencies and platforms about the definition and use of those attributes. The Internet also opens access to online resources for upskilling and reskilling, enabling remote work and virtual learning, and it allows work to find the talent it needs.

In Mauritania, the UNDP is partnering with the Ministry of Digital Transformation, Innovation and Public Sector Modernization (MTNIMA), to advance the country’s digital transformation using a whole-of-society approach. The strategy focuses on reinforcing digital foundations, through the co-creation of governance. The initiative involves operationalization of the Agence numérique de l’Etat (ANETA). This body will drive digital transformation across ministries, the implementation of a set of key initiatives including a feasibility study for the implementation of a Sovereign Digital ID, building technical and institutional capacity in data science and data management, and the establishment of a digital development fund, to finance key initiatives.

This approach focuses on developing enabling infrastructure, improving accessibility to digital connectivity, and buttressing efforts that address cybersecurity, misinformation, and digital privacy concerns that undermine democratic governance and social cohesion. Similarly, the UK has placed on its legislative agenda, an amendment that will require social media companies to proactively tackle disinformation. The amendment intends to tackle fake social media accounts set up on behalf of foreign states that aim to influence elections, court proceedings and support unimpeded state-backed misinformation. The amendment links the National Security Bill and the Online Safety Bill.

In Japan, a whole-of-society approach undergirds the National Centre for Incident Readiness that protects critical infrastructure in: Financial Services, Digital Public Services, Information and Communication Services, Electric Power Services, Procurement Services, Aviation Services, Gas Supply Services, Municipal Services, Government and Administrative Services, Electronic Transaction Services including Click Wrap Contracts and Electronic Signatures, Medical Services, Water Services, Logistics, and Port Services, Chemical Industries, Credit Card and Digital Currency Services, FinTech Services, Petroleum Industries, and Green Energy Services.

A rising tide lifts all boats, but a whole-of-society approach embraces the idea that no citizen has crossed the pandemic portal, until the last one is on the other side. Designing and developing inclusive digital ecosystems turn on a clear and public national innovation policy. This policy is inextricably intertwined with a future-proof digital economy plan that will output knowledge products by integrating expertise with foresight and horizon-scanning. This serves to influence discourse and guide the development practice towards inclusive digital development.

Digital Development confronts those unfreedoms that deter citizens from going online due to income inequality or the lack of skills, or knowledge, or devices. Lowering these barriers enough so that everyone gets online is a tremendous test. Disaggregated data reveal that the world’s offline population is unevenly distributed across regions, countries, and population groups, creating multiple digital divides such as generation, gender, location, income, and education. Understanding these divides helps to target specific connectivity areas and population clusters.

One-third of countries have advanced digital and regulatory frameworks. Their economies are more likely to enjoy digital dividends. Benchmark studies highlight nine leading countries – Australia, Canada, Estonia, Finland, Germany, the Republic of Korea, the Netherlands, Singapore, and the UK. They are leveraging strong cross-sectoral policies and delivering on digital development objectives. We are in the middle of a collision between digital dividends and divides.