Internet access is key to ending global inequality as the world moves online

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exacerbated, climate change, digital age, metaverse

We all know too well that the world is not becoming more equal. Inequality between and within nations is rising with historic speed worldwide.

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The income gap between rich and poor among member states of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is at its highest in 30 years. In the 1980s, the richest 10 per cent of those populations earned seven times more than the poorest 10 per cent, while today, they earn nine times more. Among the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, this figure is no better.

Yes, economic growth through liberal economic policies in Asean has lifted millions out of poverty since the early 2000s. The poverty rate has fallen from 47 per cent in 1990 to 14 per cent in 2015, according to official figures. Undernourishment fell from 30.4 per cent to 8.9 per cent in the same period, while life expectancy rose from 56 years in 1967 to 71 in 2016.

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But this does nothing to stop the rapidly increasing income inequality in the region, which has been exacerbated by the economic effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Gini index figures for Asean are telling.

The 2018 Global Wealth Report by Credit Suisse ranks Thailand highest among Asean countries at 90.2 on the Gini index, followed by Indonesia at 84, Philippines at 82.6 and Malaysia at 82. These figures essentially mean that more than half the wealth of these nations is controlled by the richest 1 per cent of the population.

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And if we expect such wealth to last forever, we are wrong. The region is nearing the end of its current growth cycle, which means that to sustain growth, countries must invest in new economic infrastructure and power a new cycle.

In 2016, the Asian Development Bank estimated that Asia’s developing economies would need to invest US$26 trillion between then and 2030, or US$1.7 trillion per year, to maintain the growth momentum, eradicate poverty and respond to climate change. That is a colossal undertaking.

How are such expensive infrastructure projects to be financed? Alexander Boehmer, head of the South and Southeast Asia division of the OECD, suggests the region is stuck in an “infrastructure financing paradox”.

Speaking on the podcast Future Things Radio, he argued that there is ample liquidity in Southeast Asia’s economy, and that the benefits of long-term investments with stable returns should appeal to governments. The problem is, they just don’t do it.

We must also consider what kind of infrastructure we are building. Will it help to spur new growth frontiers in the digital age? Certainly, as we move towards renewable energy and AI technology, we cannot power future growth by investing in old economic frameworks. This is something policymakers need to think long and hard about.

Another pressing issue is the dependence of many Asean countries on extractive industries. While they are a source of instant revenue for governments, this income is meaningless if isn’t invested in human capital and good infrastructure.

Many countries unfortunately fall into this trap, and the repercussions of having a perpetually uneducated, unskilled workforce will keep dreams of embracing the digital age within the confines of the mind.

On the other hand, developing a workforce that is able to meet the challenges of the future will aid long-term growth. As Sandiaga Uno, Indonesia’s Minister of Tourism and Creative Economy, said, “countries like Indonesia, with a huge demographic dividend, stand to gain exponentially if we place policies to educate and train our largely young workforce to prepare them for the digital age”.

There is one big problem though. If the vast majority of the population is still not plugged into the internet, how can they benefit from the opportunities therein?

According to the United Nations, today nearly 3 billion people, or 37 per cent of the world’s population, have no access to the internet, and 96 per cent of them live in developing countries. Thus, the real divide between nations today is what Alexander Boehmer calls the “digital divide”. These people risk being left behind as OECD nations and elites in emerging countries race to profit from the digital revolution.

And now, the mobile internet era is evolving into something new: the metaverse. Tech companies like Facebook are at the forefront of this development, even changing their name to reflect the significance of this parallel digital universe.

It has the potential to drastically change our lives, creating new economic opportunities and new pathways to human development. But none of that will be available to a huge chunk of the world’s population unless the governments of today make the internet a public good that is accessible to all.

The tools for achieving greater equality are there for those who can reach them. Wikipedia, for example, has opened the doors wide for ordinary people to access new knowledge, while high-quality educational content is available on Coursera and other massive open online course, or MOOC, platforms.

All people need now is equal access to the internet at all times for real equality to be achieved in the digital age. Will the Covid-19 pandemic be the catalyst for governments to take action at long last and spread accessibility far and wide?

Fazil Irwan Som is the podcast host for Future Things Media, a media platform discussing perspectives on the future that shape our lives, society, culture, economic and financial system

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