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6 steps to achieving digital inclusion for marginalized communities


June 27, 2023

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While the country still has a very long way to go, the Philippines has, over years of struggle, steadily managed to make impressive headway in reducing poverty. If its successes continue to hold, the fast-growing Southeast Asian economy may finally have a middle-class larger than its lower class, a demographic shift that is associated with highly prosperous countries.

A lot of the country’s recent successes in reducing extreme poverty have to do with the ongoing trend of digital transformation, which has created numerous economic opportunities wherever quality digital infrastructure is present. Unfortunately, the gains that the Philippines has made in reducing poverty may soon be effectively limited by a current lack of digital inclusion—a challenge that the government and its private sector partners are meeting head-on. 

What is digital inclusion?

Digital inclusion refers to the process of ensuring that everyone in a community or society has equal access to important digital technologies, regardless of their socioeconomic status, gender, ethnicity, age, or location. Without true digital inclusion, any economic gains made by a country through the digital economy will remain concentrated among the privileged classes, resulting in social unrest and poor long-term economic performance.

In highly diverse and geographically fragmented countries like the Philippines, achieving digital inclusion can be a challenge but it is one that’s worth achieving. When done conscientiously, digital inclusion can help reduce inequality, increase access to education and employment opportunities, and promote social mobility. These advantages do not only extend to marginalized communities that gain access to digital tools but also to already digitally connected people who may benefit from the value created by newly included communities.

Which communities in the Philippines are marginalized?

Marginalized communities include any group that faces barriers to full participation in society. In the Philippines, several groups of people face marginalization due to their ethnic background, religion, economic status, sexual orientation, and disability. Historically, Filipino groups that do not fit within the archetypal lowland Filipino Christian culture have faced some form of marginalization, as have less economically privileged Filipinos. Furthermore, Filipinos with atypical lifestyles such as those identifying as LGBTQ, single parents, and religious minorities also face varying degrees of discrimination.

However, in the context of digital inclusion, marginalized Filipinos tend to include those who cannot afford to buy their way into the digital mainstream and those without easy access to stable broadband connections because of where they live. As such, they are effectively excluded from the numerous opportunities available to other Filipinos. Because low-income and rural Filipinos still comprise a majority of the population, a continuing lack of digital inclusion may lead to a further widening of existing socioeconomic gaps, possibly leading to serious consequences for the country later on.

Fortunately, wider digital inclusion is possible. By learning from experiences in other countries and following guidelines recommended by the International Telecommunication Union, the World Bank, and other globally recognized entities, Philippine policymakers and infrastructure developers like Aboitiz InfraCapital (AIC) can spearhead universal digital inclusion for Filipinos. Here are six steps that can be taken to achieve digital inclusion within the Philippines:

1) Assess the needs of marginalized communities

Before building any new infrastructure, developers need to understand the specific needs and challenges of marginalized communities. For instance, the needs of a low-income community in a mountain area might be very different from the needs of one located on a remote island. Furthermore, some of a community’s needs might be difficult for outsiders to understand if they do not engage with the community first.

This type of consultative assessment is critical to avoiding mistakes made in the past. While older top-down development policies have enabled more inclusion and economic growth in the past, these gains often came at a dire cost. Top-heavy governance has, all too often, focused on the needs of the majority or of the most privileged, with disregard for everyone else. 

Fortunately, we now live in an era where consultative policymaking is more feasible than ever. By listening to the voices of those negatively affected by the Philippines’ digital divide, we can develop targeted and cost-effective solutions.

2) Provide affordable and accessible internet

Diverse people using their phones

As mentioned earlier, price and access to reliable broadband internet connections are primary hurdles to universal digital inclusion. Today, while most Filipinos have access to a smartphone or laptop, many are still unable to stay constantly connected or are unable to access a reliable broadband connection.

To bridge the digital divide, two things must happen. First, the cost of connectivity needs to be brought down to a price that all families could afford. Second, appropriate digital infrastructure should be built to reach all communities. Accomplishing these can help bridge the digital divide and ensure that all Filipinos have the tools to participate in the modern digital economy.

A lot of progress has already been made on these two tasks. The cost of internet connectivity has continuously dropped over the past few years, giving hope that all Filipinos may one day have unlimited access to the internet. Additionally, the development of common towers as well as the deployment of small cell sites are filling in connectivity gaps throughout the Philippine countryside. In anticipation of millions of previously disenfranchised Filipinos permanently coming online, AIC is now also developing several data centers to meet the expected rise in the country’s data needs.

3) Provide digital literacy training

It’s one thing to give a person a hammer and quite another thing to expect them to become a skilled carpenter overnight. Using the same line of thinking, it’s not enough to simply provide affordable internet to every Filipino without teaching the considerate use of the technology. Without the right training, newly online Filipinos will be unable to safely navigate their new digital landscape, putting themselves and many others at risk.

Preparing individuals to use the internet in a productive, safe, and meaningful way is often described as “digital readiness”. According to the Pew Institute, digital readiness has three measurable elements—skills, trust, and use. “Skills” involves the ability to use and manage different technologies and applications. “Use” is meant to measure how often digital technologies are used for meaningful rather than purely passive activities. Lastly, “trust” is the ability to gauge the trustworthiness of online information and protect one’s data from intrusion.

By providing structured digital literacy and digital readiness training, policymakers can help previously marginalized individuals safely navigate the internet and use it to create value, preventing them from being mere consumers of content. With effort from all sectors, not only can we achieve better digital inclusion but we can also ensure that new internet users can use the web to generate real value for themselves and their communities.

4) Ensure access to digital devices

hands using smartphones

While most Filipinos today do have access to an internet-capable device like a smartphone, many still have to share their device with other family members. Also, for marginalized people to create value through the internet, a laptop or desktop device is ideal. Unfortunately, these devices are still not universally owned by less-privileged Filipinos, which limits the ability of the country to achieve meaningful digital inclusion.

While the cost of both smartphones and basic computers has gone down, many low-income households still cannot afford these tools or justify having several of them in their home. This puts many individuals in a situation where they can’t use their devices for work or learning.

Thankfully, it is possible to provide every marginalized Filipino with a phone and a basic laptop. Not only are usable devices cheaper than ever but even old phones and laptops can also provide new internet users with all the functionality they need to participate in the digital world. 

Capacitating school-age children by providing them with affordable laptops is one possible solution. Not only will this afford each child with a powerful learning tool but it will also offer opportunities for them to become digitally ready. The government and private sector can make this happen by sourcing affordable new and used devices. This assistance may ultimately help children from marginalized families gain a needed foothold on the world wide web.

5) Leverage public-private partnerships

The government and private sector can do more than provide laptops to school children. The combined resources of the private and public spheres can be leveraged to provide marginalized communities with all kinds of critical assistance. For instance, larger private schools and business process outsourcing companies with extra capacity can help provide less-privileged adults with important digital readiness and digital livelihood training as well as jobs that help elevate the country’s digital economy. By working together, businesses and individual Filipinos can do their part to ensure a more digitally inclusive country.

6) Address the root causes of marginalization

Digital exclusion is often merely a symptom of deep-seated structural inequalities. Addressing the root causes of marginalization, such as poverty and geographic chauvinism, are not only essential for achieving digital inclusion but for bridging various other socioeconomic divides as well. While addressing these root causes may be more challenging than any infrastructure project, doing so will be necessary for achieving meaningful and lasting digital inclusion in the Philippines. 

Building a digitally inclusive Philippines

Full participation in 21st-century society is only possible with meaningful digital inclusion. While it will be difficult to achieve, it’s worth reaching for, as the country’s full economic and cultural potential will not be realized without it. With the participation of key players like Aboitiz InfraCapital, the Philippines will one day meet its goals of universal digital inclusion and prosperity for all Filipinos.

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