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Closing the digital inclusion gap

The latest survey from the World Benchmarking Alliance finds corporate digital inclusion has improved. But more can be done to upskill the workforce.

By Adrian Murdoch

A binary decision. The corporate world is failing to support the workforce and develop suitable digital skills, according to The World Benchmarking Alliance. (Image by Lightspring via ShutterStock)
  • The World Benchmarking Alliance’s Digital Inclusion Benchmark highlights a lack of engagement and rigour in digital inclusion policies.
  • While some companies, such as Telefonica, Orange and Deutsche Telekom, scored highly in digital inclusion efforts, many initiatives set up during the pandemic to provide internet access or laptops have been cut over the past year.
  • Digital inclusion is essential for the growth of the economy, particularly in Africa where internet businesses could add $180bn to the continent’s GDP by 2025.

We have a problem with digital inclusion.

The World Benchmarking Alliance’s (WBA) latest Digital Inclusion Benchmark, published in mid-March, found only 27 of the 200 companies assessed scored at least 50 out of 100 on its criteria. It ranked companies based on enabling greater access to digital technologies, improving digital skills, reducing usage risks and ensuring inclusive and ethical innovation.

In the UK alone, the British government’s House of Commons Science and Technology Committee estimates that the digital skills gap costs Britain £63bn ($78bn) a year in lost revenues. 

“The consequences of digital exclusion are starker than ever,” says Pauliina Murphy, WBA’s engagement and communications director.

The Amsterdam-based non-profit organisation weighs up and ranks the world’s most influential companies on their contributions to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).

It evaluated companies’ performances across four measurement areas – access, skills, use and innovation – which were each broken down into four indicators designed with reference to the 17 SDGs. The aim is to go beyond measuring corporate policies and processes to examine company performance and outcomes; the extent to which companies put their commitments, policies and strategies into practice.

Lack of rigour

“Our research discovers a disappointing lack of rigour and engagement with digital inclusion policies throughout the tech industry,” says WBA research and digitisation director, Lourdes Montenegro.

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For example, many corporate social responsibility activities that had been set up during the Covid-19 pandemic, such as providing internet access or laptops to underprivileged students so they could learn remotely, had been cut in the last year.

Out of the 38 companies identified as having such initiatives in the last survey, 24 have discontinued them.

Some companies – notably Spanish telco Telefonica, European telco Orange and Germany’s Deutsche Telekom – continue to score highly [see chart].

Telefonica, for example, achieves a “perfect score” for digital inclusion for its efforts in cybersecurity, data privacy and child online safety. It also ranks first for its skills development programmes. In innovation, the company supports start-ups, promotes sustainability practices and discloses its ethical AI principles.

“Telefónica is highly transparent about its activities and its annual consolidated management report aligns with international reporting standards,” the report says.

Now in its third year, the Digital Inclusion Benchmark noted the benefits of this kind of visibility. Of the 150 companies that were included in last year’s benchmark, the average company score in digital inclusion, for example, went up by 6.8% from 33 to 36.

But the other end of the scale was more disappointing. Bottom of the list was the Indian ride-hailing app, Ola.  “Ola is among the worst-performing companies on the combined benchmark due to its poor performance on both digital inclusion and the core social indicators,” the report says.

It highlights limited reporting including a lack of environmental, social and governance (ESG) reports as significant. This is disappointing in a company that had revenues of $132.7m last year and operates in four international markets.

Make digital relevant

The importance of digital inclusion should not be underestimated. It works across all SDGs, but especially SDG 9 which helps to build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialisation, and foster innovation.

Take Africa, for example. A report from the UK's Department for International Trade in October last year argued that internet businesses in Africa could add $180bn to the continent’s GDP by 2025 with more digital inclusion.

The continent remains woefully underserved. Although London-based industry non-profit organisation GSMA estimates that 6% of the world’s population is currently unable to access mobile broadband, sub-Saharan Africa is home to almost half of those – 47% of the world’s uncovered population or around 210m people.

The barriers remain significant. Affordability, access as well as knowledge and skills remain basic entries to the market, but there are also significant concerns about relevance, safety and security.

“There is the question of relevance. Is the content on offer catering [to] people’s needs? Is it available in local languages? And for varying levels of literacy?” says Melle Tiel Groenestege, director of digital inclusion policy and advocacy at GSMA in London.

There are, at least, signs of engagement. The main takeaway from a survey last year looking at digital banking in Africa was the importance of digital inclusion.

Almost two-thirds of the 100 African banks that responded described digital transformation as the most important factor for growth, with the majority of the remaining saying it was one of its bank’s top three priorities.

“Barriers to digital banking are falling,” says Matthijs Eijpe, regional vice-president of Europe, the Middle East and Africa at the Dutch banking technology company Backbase, which commissioned the survey.

While much work remains to be done, investing in digital inclusion is not only the right thing to do but also has the potential to be profitable.

[Read also Digitalising Climate Planning]

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