Guest post by Kim Titcombe
All eyes were on Washington last week as the decision makers of the world on development finance held their annual ritual of spring meetings.
On the other side of the Atlantic, in Geneva, there was also a big buzz as IT geeks, educationalists, development practitioners and policy makers crossed paths and put their heads together over the course of 5 days through a plethora of high level sessions and working groups at the World Information Society Summit — known as WSIS https://www.itu.int/net4/wsis/forum/2019/ − under the auspices of the ITU, sitting beside the Place des Nations and the 194 flag walkway.
With 190 sessions scheduled total, it was clear that parallel sessions — ten running at a time — were going to be competing for attention and attendance. And taking a glance at the schedule, it was pretty clear who the winners were going to be in those stakes. How the scheduling of these sessions is juggled, I have no idea. For me, what jumped out from the program was that gender did not receive the attention it deserves. Neither in scheduling nor in attendance.
In today’s world, it would be a rare day that we do not encounter the word ‘digitalization’ at least once; and it is digitalization that is at the core of the WSIS theme. And, as ITU is committed to digitalization as a development paradigm, clearly most sessions were situated firmly within the ICT4D dimension and linked to the relevant SDGs.
However, with numerous sessions sponsored by hosts from the private sector, commercial interests clearly drive the agenda, to a greater or lesser extent, and gender is quite simply is not on the commercial radar.
Of the 190 sessions only seven were directly, or indirectly, on the subject of gender and digitalization (but not necessarily even within an SDG framework). These sessions, despite being mostly well delivered through engaged panel members, just didn’t pull the punch. They didn’t draw the crowds. It did not help that in one of the final sessions, on Gender Mainstreaming, towards the close of the symposium, when enthusiasm had started to flag, a commercial group held a competing event giving away free mobile telephones in a raffle. How can you compete with that?
What became apparent was that, throughout the week, youth drew the attention and the crowds. There were labs, hackathons, competitions and presentations on a wide range of themes, all involving youth and digitalization. We all acknowledge the undeniable fact that youth are the future. It has always been like that it is not changing now just because of digitalization. But because so much of digitalization is commercially driven, and the huge market potential exploding from it is dazzling, clearly it is young women and men across the continents, in the developed, as well as the developing world, who are hungry for the products and services the industry provides. Youth provides the consumers of the present and the future.
Notable by their absence, after a week of reflection on these themes, is the older generation. Where does non-youth fit into the digitalization paradigm? In the symposium, there was one session, and one only, addressing this issue, namely, of older persons and new technologies. With a third of the population predicted to be over the age of 65 by 2050 in greying countries like in Japan this segment of the population has attracted due interest among providers of health services and equipment only in the rich world. Clearly, in the developing world, this segment of the population also deserves more focus.
In the buzz world of ICT4D, where coding bootcamps for youth is all the talk, aging in itself is a topic barely touched. And gender and digitalization for older people? In development discourse, the topic is completed evaded, if not actually avoided. The whole issue of whether the digital gap is widening for older people in developing countries is just not even on the agenda of most policy debates.
The gender gap in digitalization has at last been recognized as an urgent matter: organizations, such as ITU (WSIS event) and UNCTAD are vocal in flagging the need for better statistics in monitoring the different impacts of digitalization in development for women compared with men. The impact of digitalization in development has not been all positive, and there are indications that, in some countries, the gender gap has actually widened rather than narrowed. The collection of sex-disaggregated statistics to guide understanding of this process is lagging behind emerging trends.
Industry sponsored organizations, such as the GSMA, have initiated commendable work to fill the statistics gaps in developing countries to improve our understanding of gender differences in mobile phone and internet adoption and usage. Particularly illuminating are the results of their surveys on the persistent socio-economic norms in some parts of the world that constrain adoption of such technologies. In other words, large segments of the population are not being reached.
However, what is missing from the research is data on the older generation. The surveys carried out by GSMA, as the leading industry body active in this area, have largely targeted their surveys at youth, with selected samples going as far as middle age. Old age? Not relevant. Driven by a commercial agenda, older people (and that is usually considered to be anyone over the age of 50 in developing country research) are just not on the radar. Who is going to make money from this segment of the population? Older women, in particular, face a cruel intersectionality of disadvantages; and if they are rural and challenged by poverty, the multitude of disadvantages compound. They are being largely ignored.
The gendered challenges that affect women differently, or more acutely, than men, persist throughout their lives. The problems don’t go away with old age; they compound. Now, as developing countries are also firmly footed in the digital age, how are we going to address the empowerment challenges that women have always faced throughout the development process? How are older women going to take part in the digital revolution if they have barely been part of the development process? If such women struggle through life with low levels of literacy, and non-existent levels of digital literacy, then, clearly, they will be severely challenged to keep up with new ways of communication, new ways of trading and new ways of taking an active part in their community.
In short, they are going to be left behind.
Kim Titcombe is an independent researcher and consultant living in Switzerland specialized in gender and development and working on diverse transversal themes, such as gender in ICT4D.