Digital inclusion and digital equityPerhaps the most critical barrier to getting into the digital world is the affordability factor.
Recent statistics released by Nepal Rastra Bank regarding the Payment Systems Indicator suggest that access to payment systems and their usage in different forms have been gaining momentum. For instance, the number of users of digital wallets, debit cards, credit cards, internet banking, mobile banking, QR based payments, point of sales and e-commerce transactions have grown substantially over the past year. The statistics are highly encouraging and suggest that the digitisation process is acting as an enabler across all domains, more so, for retail and banking products that are being made available in a highly differentiated and customised form as per the figures cited above.
Exclusion and inequity
While the figures of digital transactions across all spheres are promising, the extent of digital inclusion and digital equity tends to get ignored more often than not. While digitisation is an inevitable component for enhancing organisational productivity and extending well-being to its people, the adoption of these products, however, seems to be concentrated largely in urban areas, and are becoming popular only among a certain socio-economic class. My own research regarding the prospects of digitisation among young entrepreneurs suggested that most entrepreneurs outside Kathmandu Valley are still hesitant in using digital products and services. This suggests that the hype that is created around digitisation is still concentrated largely in the cities that have better internet facilities. Despite the lack of published data, what can safely be inferred is that the extent of digital exclusion and inequity continues to be large.
Inequality has several dimensions, and it may be noted that the general terminology used to denote the same are digital divide or digital exclusion. For instance, there is a rural-urban divide in setting up digital enterprises as well as developing and using digital products and services by sectors and industries. A similar divide exists across geographical regions such as between Bagmati, Karnali and Sudur Paschim provinces. Even within a given society in the same geography, there is digital exclusion among certain communities like Dalits and indigenous people who suffer from other structural exclusion in social and economic spheres.
There is ample research evidence to suggest that economic divide itself has a very high direct correlation with digital exclusion or digital divide. People with higher incomes understandably have better access to the gadgets and software products and even greater knowledge to use them. However, there is still a systematic problem of inclusion and representation of people at the policy making level. The rights they exercise and the demands they make have undoubtedly a profound impact on making better policies to bridge several of the glaring gaps that we witness even today. But the reality is that the marginalised and excluded populace continues to have little access to services like education and health, and therefore, do not have any role and say in public policy making. These are the ground realities that reflect the problem of digital inequality across these specific domains and jurisdictions.
Digital divide by gender type is yet another layer of this continuing problem that is found to be deep and alarming. All the four types of divide and exclusion mentioned above are definitely systemic in nature and put an additional veil on exclusion that exists in our society. We can consider gender inequality as the worst form among the four when we consider all the four aspects of digital awareness, digital access, digital availability and digital affordability. While the awareness levels of people in general are less, those of female users on the productive use of email and internet is partly much more limited.
Knowledge and literacy
The Digital Nepal Framework is a policy formulated primarily for making the Nepali economy, its governance and service delivery a digital one. But this has met with a plethora of structural issues that are impossible to be discussed without a large-scale national level research.
The imperative is for carrying out a country-level research to look into these various forms of exclusion in terms of national averages computed individually for their share in a digital economy and digital eco-system. Additionally, research should segregate systemic exclusions of women in terms of geographical and spatial divisions across ethnic communities among different strata of income and economic opportunities and structural exclusion that are mentioned above.
Women tend to have lower literacy skills, and lower enrolment than their male counterparts in technical and vocational training and skill development programmes. Enhancing gender digital inclusion requires women to be part of such initiatives. Dedicated policy initiatives to increase enrolment of women in higher education need to be devised. Short-term training programmes to enhance digital literacy skills need to be provided to women.
Increasing digital inclusion based on gender should incorporate programmes that ensure market access of digital devices and services. To ensure productive use of the internet, they need to be supported by policies to increase the income of the users and also the availability of computers per household. The most productive usage of the internet, such as learning new software, requires access to laptop or desktop computers as opposed to mobile phones.
Even an informal level of awareness about the products and benefits that are directly or indirectly related to digitisation is apparently far behind the male averages, though credible data and research to differentiate male and female digital literacy skills in Nepal are perhaps yet to be compiled and analysed. Even the prevalence of gadgets like smartphones, laptops and personal computers is very low in Nepal, which is about 4.37 computers per 1,000 people on an average. Availability of user-friendly products like digital apps or services that are customised in their own mother tongue or dialect is far less likely to be available.
Even the unavailability of software design in user-friendly format could prove to be a major impediment for users. Perhaps the most critical barrier to getting into the digital world is the affordability factor. Several pre-existing conditions, such as limited entitlement to property and engagement in less-paying jobs, limit people's options regarding digital entitlement, including factors that prevent them from buying useful gadgets, learning about them, and using them to uplift their living and livelihood. Increasing digital awareness and enhancing digital literacy and adoption can be the route for digital inclusion and equity.