Closing the global and national digital divide
In the last couple of decades, the “digital divide” was narrowly defined by people’s access to the internet. Myanmar, of course, had very poor internet connections as recently as six years ago. In 2012, this country’s internet penetration was a mere eight percent of the population. In 2018, with four mobile phone operators in a highly competitive market and extremely cheap SIM cards, internet penetration is over 80pc.
Does this mean that we have closed the digital divide in this nation? Nope, we have to answer.
Despite the fact that Myanmar people are more connected than ever electronically, there is still a divide in the country and the rest of the world. In fact, the digital divide is widening at an accelerating pace, with advanced and emerging economies moving fast to capture new opportunities created by technology.
The use of automatic telling machines and those handy ATM cards is more widespread than let’s say 10 years ago in Myanmar, but again that does not mean that it is all over the country. We have e-books and online shopping now but not to an extent that can rival Amazon or Alibaba, the global giants.
Grab taxi service and similar applications are available in Myanmar nowadays but only to urbanites, especially in Yangon.
Digital technology has been put to good use in many parts of the developing world. Data-driven farming techniques are helping farmers achieve higher yields. Mobile finance is broadening financial inclusion to poor communities.
However, these innovations will not be enough to prevent developing countries from falling behind in the global economy. To catch up with the North, policymakers will need new tools. To invest in those tools, we will need the support of international organisations.
For example, the ongoing World Trade Organisation discussions about the rules that will govern the digital economy should be expanded to include strategies for levelling the global playing field.
China used a protectionist industrial policy to nurture domestic digital giants like Baidu and Tencent, but it is now supporting these firms as they move deeper into development of new technologies and trying to expand globally.
We should pay equal attention to both the global and national digital divide so that we would not lag behind other developing countries.
Overcoming the resource constraints that limit our investment in the digital economy will not be easy. However, failing to do so will carry a steeper price.