The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted businesses and the working habits and lives of billions around the world. But it has also shone a spotlight on some of the wider IT challenges already being faced by many governments, businesses and communities.
In the Middle East and North Africa, these digital discrepancies are especially pronounced given the cultural and financial diversity of the region. Although these issues pre-date the pandemic, it has nonetheless reinforced the need for them to be tackled.
Here are three of the biggest digital-divide issues the region faces:
1. Access and affordability
"In the Middle East and North Africa, the proportion of the population not covered by a mobile broadband network fell by more than half between 2014 and 2018 and now stands at 11%," the GSMA states.
Yet, as the GSMA observes, "almost half the population are not connected to the mobile internet even though they are covered by a 3G or 4G network".
As a result, GSMA data shows that in 2018 smartphone penetration across the typically more affluent Gulf nations stood at 75%, compared with 52% in North Africa and 39% in other Arab states such as Sudan. At a time of growing unemployment and reduced government subsidies, the cost of digital services may become harder still for many households to afford.
Alongside this problem, a further factor behind these, and other, take-up statistics is the pronounced gender gap present across much of the region when it comes to technology access.
And, of course, as Internews' Saoussen Ben Cheikh reminds us, moving your life or business online is not an option in conflict-stricken countries. In places such as "Libya, Syria and Yemen, strained by conflict and economic chaos, users face low-speed internet and prohibitive costs".
Moreover, "many countries saw meaningful drops in average download speeds for mobile and fixed internet connections between February and March 2020", Simon Kemp, chief analyst at DataReportal, writes. Average download speeds for mobile internet dropped by 13% in Israel, 12% in Morocco, and 9.7% in Turkey, between February and March 2020.
Addressing these issues may further help to reduce digital divides, by creating more reasons for widespread digital adoption and engagement.
3. Digital skills and literacy
Historically, efforts to engender digital skills have focused on meeting existing and predicted IT skill gaps. This remains a priority for countries across the region as they continue to pivot towards becoming knowledge-based economies.
That said, digital skill requirements must go beyond conventional technology education and training.
A further important consideration, even in countries with high levels of tech take-up, is the breadth and depth of digital usage.
The coronavirus may have helped to remedy elements of this problem, by creating opportunities for new digital habits, such as online shopping and learning. But, it has also amplified other digital literacy issues.
Dubbed an 'infodemic', by Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director general of the World Health Organization (WHO), there's a further concern that "fake news spreads faster and more easily than this virus, and is just as dangerous".
To counteract the spread of falsehoods, consumers need to become more information literate, and we need to see more fact-checking efforts – especially during a public-health crisis – like the one launched last year by AFP, in Arabic.
Bridging the divide
The region's digital divide is readily apparent. Remedying this social injustice is important if the socio-economic benefits afforded by digital technology are to be unlocked across the region.
"Now, more than ever, governments, industry, international organizations, NGOs, academia and other stakeholders must work together to find mutually beneficial solutions," the ITU suggests.
There is precedent for this type of collaboration and innovation. Facebook and Twitter have sought to address affordability issues through the launch of 'lite' versions of their services.
To this list, we should add further investment in local tech education and Arabic digital content, cultural shifts towards a greater acceptance of working from home, and the creation of new products and services – such as mobile wallets – which meet real consumer needs.