Information and communication technology (ICT) is spreading around the world with ever-increasing speed and intensity, fundamentally transforming societies and affecting every aspect of human life. ICT offers infinite possibilities for improving human wellbeing but can also create new forms of inequalities.
Whether it will be an enabler or a barrier to human welfare depends on how it is deployed and used. What is unnerving, existing sociocultural inequalities also create inequality in digital literacy—the ability to take advantage of ICT—potentially creating a negative feedback loop and further worsening the existing inequalities.
Clearly, access to technology depends on personal economic realities. But even when technology is available, because of differences in education and guidance, its use can be very different. For example, compared to children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, children in educated, wealthy families not just have better access to technology but also better parental guidance and education on how to use them well.
Indeed, studies have repeatedly found that richer children are more likely to use the internet for productive purposes like reading news or searching for information whereas poorer children are more likely to use it for entertainment, like gaming and chatting. Consequently, using the same technology, richer children have greater chances of improving their wellbeing (e.g. through better knowledge) while the poorer children have a greater chance of harming themselves (e.g. by wasting valuable time on online entertainment).
People with low digital literacy, more likely to be from disadvantaged backgrounds, are finding it increasingly difficult even to navigate daily life, e.g. accessing essential services now offered online. On the other hand, digitally literate people, more likely to be from wealthier, educated backgrounds, are leveraging their access to technology and digital skills not only to glide through the online services but also to increase their capabilities—knowledge, skills, networks, etc.
These examples clearly illustrate the mutually dependent nature of socioeconomic and digital inequalities. That is why we should pay close attention to the emerging digital divide—inequality in digital literacy—and find ways of bridging this gap.
A wide digital divide is already a reality across the world. More than 80 percent of the population in developed countries use the internet; the average rate is only about 40 percent in developing countries. Additionally, a 2015 PEW research across 40 diverse countries found a wide gap in internet use between men and women and between people with higher and lower income and education levels, irrespective of the development stage of the country.
In recent decades, Bangladesh has made considerable progress in creating and expanding digital access, particularly in mobile phone and internet. According to a survey across the Global South in 2018 by LIRNEasia, an Asia Pacific-based think-tank, three-quarters of the population aged 15 to 65 in Bangladesh used mobile phones, highest among the seven Asian countries surveyed; however, only 33 percent in this age group used the internet, one of the lowest! The same study found a very large gap in internet access between men and women and between rural and urban areas.
As digital inequality is a mere extension of the existing structural inequalities, a idivide in digital literacy between rural and urban areas is not unexpected.
To better understand the state of digital literacy in rural Bangladesh, BRAC Institute of Governance and Bangladesh (BIGD) surveyed 6,500 rural households across all divisions. To methodically assess the level of digital literacy, BIGD researchers created an index, DLit_BIGD 1.0, consisting of different aspects or indicators of digital access and skills. To ensure its appropriateness in low-access, low-skills setting like rural Bangladesh, the index used only elementary indicators - e.g. smartphone access and internet usage under access, and the ability to find public service information online and to make video calls under skills. No advance indicators were used, e.g. internet speed or ability to use MS Office. Based on the assessment, every household was given a digital literacy index (DLI) score between 0.0 and 1.0, with 0 signifying an absence and 1.0 signifying the presence of all indicators used in the index.
Not unexpectedly, the study found a generally low level of digital literacy in rural Bangladesh. The perfect score of 1.0 indicates the presence of elementary digital literacy only, and even then, only two out of 6,500 households scored 1.0 and 50 percent scored 0.25 or below; this shows a grim picture of digital literacy in rural Bangladesh.
And even in this low-literacy context, significant digital inequality has been found along the line of predominant structural inequalities.
An obvious source of inequality is gender. We tried to identify the most digitally able person in a household according to the opinion of the household members; twice as many households agreed on a male member than a female member as the most digitally able person in their household. This is partly explained by their access; 40 percent men have internet access compared to only 32 percent women.
But access alone cannot explain this large gap. We all know that women in Bangladesh lag far behind in terms of higher education—more specifically in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM); participation in the labour market, and income. These inequalities stem from and also perpetuate existing sociocultural discriminations faced by women, all of which strongly influences the large digital divide between men and women.
As expected, and along the same line, we have also found a very large difference among richer and poorer households. For example, only a fifth of the households with Tk10,000 in monthly income have internet access; the rate is almost 75 percent for households with an income of Tk30,000 or more.
Of those who have internet, only 34 percent of the former groups and 41 percent of the latter were successful in a simple online test—finding the form, fees, and hotline number from the open homepage of the passport department in Bangla. We found similar differences by the education status; respondents with Secondary School Certificate (SSC) and a higher level of education had substantially better access and skills compared to the less educated people.
The survey conducted by BIGD was first of its kind, which tried to systematically assess the state of digital literacy of in Rural Bangladesh. It paints quite a dismal picture of the digital readiness of our rural citizens, still constituting the majority of our population. It also revealed the large digital divide that is emerging within rural communities, creating possibilities of further marginalisation of what are already disadvantaged groups.
To achieve the goal of inclusive human development, we must pay attention to the rural-urban digital divide and prioritise the disadvantaged and marginalised groups. Otherwise, only certain groups can realise the the dream of "Digital Bangladesh"; for others, this shall remain a mere dream.
Nusrat Jahan, Head of Business Development and Knowledge management, BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD), BRAC University.