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Digital ID part of social contract between govt, citizens: World Bank, Verizon chiefs

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Digital ID part of social contract between govt, citizens: World Bank, Verizon chiefs
 

The President of the World Bank Group, Ajay Banga, and the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Verizon, Hans Vestberg, have emphasized the need to close the yawning digital divide which remains one of the biggest setbacks to digital inclusion efforts globally.

The two officials shared their thoughts in a panel during the inaugural edition of the Global Digital Summit, organized by the World Bank, which took place from March 4-7 in Washington, DC under the theme “Accelerating Digital for Development.” Digital identity, they underlined, is foundational in the digital transformation journey and governments must own them as part of their social contract with citizens.

The summit, anchored on the three pillars of “Connect, Innovate and Transform,” aimed at discussing advancements in global digital transformation efforts and examine and proffer possible solutions to some barriers such as privacy and security risks brought about by generative artificial intelligence.

The event rallied representatives from governments, the private sector, partner organizations and thought leaders from various domains of life.

In the panel, Banga and Vestberg agree that connectivity is one of the primary drivers of digital transformation, but weak internet coverage remains a stumbling block especially in Africa where about 600 million people are said not to have electricity in the first place.

“That’s absolutely unacceptable and it’s an issue of human rights. I consider that as important as the right to breathe. So, we have to give them access to electricity. But at the same time, you have to remember that 1/3 of people in the world don’t have access to the internet. And there are more than two billion people involved. That gets exacerbated when you talk gender and age,” says Banga about the connectivity problem.

They also note that with the appropriate policies and investments, countries will significantly advance their digital transformation endeavours, and quicken the pace of their socio-economic development drive.

“The reality is we have to get those 600 million people connected to electricity. The Bank has made a commitment to reach 100 million by 2030. We are seeking to expand that ambition to another 100 million. We can do that, with renewable energy by the way. We have tried it out in Rwanda and Tanzania, and we know it can work.”

Banga says there is also a segment of the world’s population that has electricity but no access to the internet, while another category of people in the world has access to internet but it is not being fully used and exploited for the capabilities that it is possible to support. “So, there are different shades of work to be done with different target audiences,” he notes.

Govts must make digital a priority

While reiterating the World Bank’s commitment and that of its partners to supporting digital transformation, Banga believes governments and the private sector must both rise to the occasion by embracing aspects like digital identity and make it a part of the social contract with their citizens.

I think that if governments embrace digital, they would create transparency, clean governance, and citizen engagement,” says the World Bank chief.

Underscoring the need for digital identity in digital transformation, Banga mentioned: “Private companies shouldn’t own that. It is the social contract of a citizen with their country to have an identity, a currency and safety. They should have digital identity and that digital identity should guarantee the privacy of that citizen.”

Banga says that the Bank has made digital one of its five verticals because it enables all the others, and the pace of change in digital is amazing. He said with digital, tasks can be accomplished faster.

“I think the way digital is growing right now under AI, it will require a shorter time frame [to complete tasks] and the Bank needs to be focussed on that. I think of digital as the breakthrough technology that takes out the arbitrage of the incumbent, and enables new ways to reach populations without the traditional challenge of the expense of reaching them for healthcare, education, and everything.”

In his intervention, Vestberg states: “I’ve often said that digital inclusion is extremely important. I think the 21st century’s infrastructure is mobility, broader than cloud. I don’t think it should matter where you are born, where you come from or who you are. You should be part of our society, and to be part of our society, you actually need to be digitally included.”

“My work at Verizon, and also globally, has been trying to see that we find the opportunities to take down the barriers [of digital inclusion] because there are very different barriers in different ways.”

Mentioning some of those barriers, the Verizon CEO notes: “Access to technology is one barrier. There are about 400 million people who are outside the telecom grid. Affordability is one of the biggest barriers of all. Affording a device or service plan is sometimes a staggering challenge. Usability is another problem. This means having applications that actually support the society either through digital education, digital healthcare, or financial inclusion, and also being part of the societal opportunities that the government gives you.”

In order to deal with these challenges, Vestberg holds that there is need for concerted action as no government, NGO, or private company can do it all alone. “I have actually rallied a lot of people around, to see how we can get more people connected. I called Ajay Banga to work with me, and ultimately, I started the EDISON Alliance with one target — to connect one billion people in five years. Today, we have had 784 million people connected in less than two and a half years,” he says.

“We are close to reaching one billion people. That’s a community of work. Verizon is doing its part. We have dedicated three billion dollars to digital inclusion in the U.S., but ultimately, everyone can do something, but we need to come together as a community. Governments need to be much more active, use the infrastructure to get all their citizens to be part of the system.”

The EDISON Alliance, early this year, released a new impact report which highlights how the lives of almost 800 million people have been positively changed through digital transformation.

Low-income countries need support for digitalization efforts

Meanwhile, in a blog article before the Washington DC summit, World Bank Senior Managing Director Axel van Trotsenburg acknowledged the huge benefits that come with digital transformation, but regrets the existing connectivity inequalities between low and high-income countries

Trotsenburg urges support for developing countries to make the most of the available opportunity for digitalization, while ensuring that the associated risks and challenges are sufficiently contained.

Digital divide notwithstanding, he highlights the unavoidable nature of digitalization, noting that “a new digital era that is accessible to all holds the potential to shape a more inclusive, resilient, and sustainable world for generations to come.”

He also calls on stakeholders to ready themselves for the better management of the risks of digitalization, and to increase investments in aspects like connectivity which is one of the key drivers of digital.

Digital sector enhances economic growth

Relatedly, the World Bank also recently released its new “Digital Progress and Trends Report 2023,” last month.

The report, which reviews the progress of digitalization and technology market trends, mentions the need to support countries whose digital transformation efforts are lagging. It highlights key policy opportunities, challenges, and debates related to digitalization.

According to the report, digital divide continues to widen and exacerbate poverty despite global digital transformation efforts, the digital sector enhances growth and job creation, and growth in data and analytical capabilities is advancing digitalization efforts.

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