Connecting the next 4 billion: How access to information underpins every SDG

Students access the Internet via a high-speed broadband connection in Tonga. More than 4 billion people — over half of the world’s population — have never accessed the Internet. Photo by: Tom Perry / World Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

Now that the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development has been formally adopted by the United Nations, some who follow the process are pointing out that previous Millennium Development Goals were never achieved. So why would the outcome of the Sustainable Development Goals be any different?

Unlike the MDGs, which were developed by a relatively small group of international development experts and donors, the SDGs are a product of far-reaching, iterative stakeholder involvement. Some argue that the SDGs are overly convoluted, while others exercise cautious optimism at the new development agenda.

Form and word count aside, the new goals reflect our current understanding of development in the face of pressing global challenges such as a digital skills divide, rising unemployment and population growth. The SDGs also acknowledge that information technology and the Internet have fundamentally reprogrammed the way we, as humans, interact and learn.

There is no single goal that calls for universal access to information. Rather, a number of targets support select goals through access to information and strengthening information and communications technology infrastructure. This makes sense. The SDGs recognize that we need to expand affordable access to information, not simply in service to education, or to health, but for practically every development priority. Access to information is not a development outcome, it is a development catalyst.

ICTs also cut across a number of SDGs. The agenda identifies technology as a tool that can drive progress across all three pillars of sustainable development, which include economic growth, social inclusion, and environmental sustainability.

However, access alone is not enough; more than 4 billion people — over half of the world’s population — have never accessed the Internet. That means half of the world is missing out on the educational, social, and economic opportunities that information access brings. Recognizing this, the new development agenda makes Internet access a priority. But in all these conversations about access, we sometimes forget that digital skills and relevant content are just as important.

People need opportunities to build digital skills. Imagine a new Internet user who needs to apply for a government ID card. Sitting them in front of a computer that’s connected to the Internet is not going to make them part of the information society — and it’s not going to land them an ID card. Technology is a piece of the puzzle. But you can only go so far without digital skills and a space to learn.

This is why people need access to community spaces where they can find technology tools, opportunities to build their digital skills, and support from professional staff. They need places where they can connect with others to learn and share.

Communities are already achieving their development goals: More than 230,000 libraries are in developing and transitioning countries, and many already support their communities’ goals. These are not closed, quiet spaces filled with old books that are only open during odd hours.

In the Philippines, rapidly expanding networks of call centers offer a new source of employment — but prospective employees need basic tech skills to fulfill the job duties. So libraries connect people with existing online job training programs and deliver regular sessions of basic digital skills classes. For free, for everyone.

In Georgia, people in rural towns often lack access to government services. Many don’t have cars, so it’s difficult to drive to other towns to find services. Libraries are now filling this gap — they’ve partnered with the Georgian government to offer guided, online access to services like land registration.

In Myanmar, libraries and librarians are guiding communities through new opportunities and information access has exploded since the country began opening up. In Insein Township in Yangon, children who are not enrolled in school can go to their local library to learn basic literacy skills with tablet-based educational games, Internet access, and support from librarians.

With new initiatives like Global Connect — which aims to connect 1.5 billion people to the Internet by 2020 — and current efforts through the Alliance for Affordable Internet and the Millennium Challenge Corp., it’s clear that the development community is prioritizing access to information and the Internet. This is vitally important.

Connecting the next 4 billion is no small feat, but it is only the first step. Let’s also make sure that the next 4 billion — those who have never gotten online — also have opportunities to build the skills they need to improve their lives.

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About the authors

  • Joel Turner

    Joel Turner is a program officer at IREX and works on Beyond Access projects in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Mali and Myanmar. Joel was previously based in Namibia, but is now based in Washington, D.C.
  • Amber Ehrke

    Amber Ehrke is a program coordinator at IREX, working on Beyond Access communications and supporting the project in Myanmar.