Does language truly make a difference in the long, hard climb toward social justice?
This is the question I set out to answer as I interviewed a cohort of leading innovators working across several countries. They’re a part of the 2023 Digital Equity Accelerator, a selective initiative which selected 10 non-profit organizations this year to participate in its programming. The Accelerator is a collaboration between the Aspen Institute and HP and works to advance social and economic equality by investing in not-for-profit organizations and NGOs that are accelerating digital inclusion.
While 2.7 billion people across the world are affected by “digital divides” – gaps in access, power, and representation – leaders widely acknowledged that “digital inclusion” efforts aren’t, by themselves, sufficient. Merely “including” the people and communities historically marginalized has not – and will not – dramatically change the trajectory of those communities to achieve voice, power, and systemic change to reverse the wealth trajectories around the world. A new goal is needed: enter “digital equity.”
What is Digital Equity?
According to the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA):
“Digital equity is a reality in which all individuals and communities have the information technology skills and access needed for full and meaningful inclusion in their societies and economies.”
Whether or not people realize it, work toward digital equity is already being carried out in every country around the world – and for leaders doing this important work, its application takes different forms depending on the needs of their communities. It’s human-centered work with an applied digital infrastructure bend.
Looking closely, one can find examples of this work almost everywhere. Projects working to provide women and girls access to education via laptops or other devices is one example. So is partnering with unemployed youth to gain access, training, and tools to enter the tech workforce. Supporting entrepreneurs – a group disproportionately left behind during the pandemic – to gain digital marketing and sales skills is yet another example.
For two years, the Digital Equity Accelerator has searched for emerging leaders in “digital equity.” Our biggest learning is this: often, the people and organizations making the biggest impact in people’s lives are working at the intersection of tech and other pressing social and economic challenges, not the ones setting out to close the digital divide. In its first year, the initiative has successfully scaled seven organizations in India, Morocco, and the United States, boosting their cumulative reach by 1.7 million people and counting.
Over the past few months, I sat down (virtually!) with non-profit leaders in digital equity to better understand what they see as the most pressing challenges to achieving social and economic justice – here’s what they had to say.
Where do global leaders need to do more to improve digital inclusion?
Build Trust through Hiring Local Leaders. Ana Ibañez, Co-Founder of StartUp LabMX, works with women-led businesses in rural and urban areas across Mexico, helping indigenous communities, entrepreneurs, and SMEs. “Serving women leading businesses in rural areas or with indigenous communities means understanding and addressing their specific cultural, linguistic, and technology needs,” says Ibañez. Core to that work is partnering with and hiring local facilitators to deliver the program and build trust with communities.”
Customize Implementation. “The global NGO community needs to design targeted interventions rather than taking a solution that works in one place and implementing it elsewhere,” says Faiza Maru Xaba, Executive Director for Marketing & Communications, Siyafunda CTC (South Africa).
What are the things we get wrong in digital equity?
Digital Skills Can’t Go it Alone. Beyond providing skills-building and digital literacy, Qhakaza Mohare, COO of Digify Africa says, “We need more collaborative effort from the private and public sector to tackle the barriers we have like limited access to learning devices like laptops, like the high cost of data… We need to invest in the partnerships to make real impact easier to achieve.”
Don’t Assume You Understand Each Community’s Problems: Rebecca Lin, Head of Education at Dignity for Children Foundation (Malaysia), knows her response to the question, “Why do you do what you do?” “It’s a fantastic question, because I ask it of myself often. It’s the people that we work for, and the team I get to work with. You really have a group of people who are very passionate, very genuine, to make a difference but it’s also the grassroots people that you go with the students. Their parents, the community, I think they really educate you to show you ‘Hey? You know this is more important than that, and this is the need. It’s not what you think we need, but this is actually what we need.”
How can digital equity interventions solve social and economic inequalities?
Embrace Complexity. “We’re aiming to help teachers and learners understand how to solve complex problems in the world and find new ways to develop digital skills and competencies. I’m obsessed with the idea that if you create a little bit of space for young people to find their passion, they can absolutely make a difference in the world,” says James Donald, Executive Director, DBE-E³ (E-Cubed).
Integrate financial and social services with EdTech. Danutcha Singh, SOLS Foundation, is working toward better outcomes for “bottom 40” populations in Malaysia. They particularly focus on indigenous populations across Malaysia, the Orang Asli, in addition to people in low-income and semi-rural locations where internet connectivity is poor or absent. “Digital equity means using technology to provide better socio-economic outcomes for the bottom 40% in Malaysia. We started by providing teachers a classroom app to understand what’s going on in their classroom – and now it’s broadened to enable people to access governmental services, personal finances, and achieve digital skills. We’re helping people access a quality of life they couldn’t have achieved before.”
Parachuting solutions into a community not only does not work in the long run, but also erodes trust and frays collaboration. “Digital equity” won’t be achieved if we approach it singularly; digital equity crosses many social and economic development challenges and can only be solved by working across industries, sectors and realities. By situating the goal to full economic, political, and social participation beyond being included in digital systems, we are able to more meaningfully move the bar, and center people’s employment, education, lifelong learning, healthcare, and other essential services. In short, focusing on people’s well-being, not their inclusion, is the key to truly achieving digital equity.
The Digital Equity Accelerator, an initiative of the Aspen Institute in collaboration with HP, fuels innovation and invests in non-profit organizations who are actively working to address the inequities that exist in technology access and use around the world.
Aspen Digital empowers policy-makers, civic organizations, companies, and the public to be responsible stewards of technology and media in the service of an informed, just, and equitable world. This Aspen Institute program shines a light on urgent global issues across cybersecurity, the information ecosystem, emerging technology, the industry talent pipeline, tech and communications policy, and innovation. It then turns ideas to action and develops human solutions to these digital challenges.
Elizabeth Vivirito (she/her) is the Communications Lead for the Digital Equity Accelerator, a collaboration between HP Inc and the Aspen Institute. The Accelerator fuels social innovation by investing in local NGOs working to address social and economic injustices that are exacerbated by unequal technology access and use around the world. For more information visit www.digitalequityaccelerator.org.