The KFPE is the information hub for global research partnerships in Switzerland. It promotes efficient, effective, and equitable research cooperation with low- and middle-income countries. By doing so, the KFPE contributes to sustainable development and to solving local and global problems.more

Image: NASAmore

The Digital Divide: its relevance in North-South research partnerships

Fixed broadband subscriptions per 100 people, 2019
Image: Our World in Data

Is fair and equal access and use of digital tools and resources an issue in your North-South research partnership? This page gives an overview of important points to consider and challenges you might encounter.

New technologies have always had a great potential of creating or increasing inequalities, and such effects may also be seen in North-South research partnerships. These may be linked to the unjust distribution of access to digital technologies, or to their use and handling. Many technological applications not only require appropriate knowledge and skills on behalf of the user, but also supporting infrastructure – for instance reliable power supply – in order to be used in a beneficial way. In an inter-connected world, these multi-level inequalities increase the differences between those who enjoy and those who lack sufficient access to the relevant technologies.

With numerous resources and services being available exclusively in digitized ways, such inequalities become even more apparent. They include an unequal availability of both hard- and software, but also widely diverging opportunities to access and use these resources within the limits of the existing infrastructure. These inequalities are currently debated as the “Digital Divide” – a divide that contributes in many ways to exclusion and to a development “à deux vitesses”. It touches mainly upon connectivity on the one hand and hardware availability on the other.

Share of global population using the internet, 2019
Share of global population using the internet, 2019Image: Our World in Data

The Digital Divide requires particular attention in the context of North-South research partnerships. It is important to recognize and combat exclusion where it actually threatens to happen. The Digital Divide often accentuates other forms of social stratification in societies, in particular with regard to gender inequalities and intergenerational issues. In addition to the digital gap, there are other gaps, such as language, culture and social structure of each country that influence the digital gaps in place.

At the same time, it is important not to take the Digital Divide for granted where there are in fact well-functioning digital resources in place and where potential challenges in North-South research partnerships may have other reasons. Among them, there may be a mere overcomplexity in the variety of communication tools used by the different partners, but also diverging cultures of using digital infrastructure (e.g. mobile/non-mobile).

Referring to all of its 11 principles, the KFPE therefore sees the following aspects as crucial with regard to reducing and combatting the Digital Divide and ensuring fair and equitable North-South research partnerships:

The Digital Divide is a fact. It affects North-South research partnerships, as access to and ownership of digital resources is sometimes unequally distributed. This may lead to hierarchies and dependencies that negatively influence the creation of trustful relationships between partners and a truly joint agenda setting. Hence, North-South research partnership projects must strive from the beginning to reduce the Digital Divide, both on the level of the research partner(s) involved, and on the level of the local communities concerned. This may entail funding requests to be considered by all partner(s) and their funding agencies.

Bridging the Digital Divide calls for a consequent use of open standards and open-source software wherever it is safely possible and no specialized user knowledge is required. Similarly, it calls for advocating an open data principle, in particular with regard to government data. Research data gathered within the context of North-South research partnerships must be securely shared among partners. Research results should be published in open-source literature wherever possible to ensure access by all.

The Digital Divide not only concerns access to scientific literature and research data, but also to peer contacts. It particularly affects young researchers and those who cannot rely on powerful institutional networks with corresponding infrastructure. This includes a serious gender issue, with female researchers having less access to digital resources than male. North-South research partnerships must thus pay particular attention to the inclusion of female and young researchers and to bridging the Digital Divide on the level of personal infrastructure and the routine use of digital scientific resources and standardly used soft- or hardware.

The Digital Divide affects multiple levels and not only describes differences between countries or world regions, but also between communities within countries. This is particularly true for rural and urban areas – both in the Global South and North. While cities guarantee better connectivity and increased availability of specialized knowledge (in particular in terms of digital literacy and technical support), rural areas more often struggle with poor network quality and infrastructure failure, in particular regarding irregular power supply. North-South research partnerships must thus pay particular attention to the situation of research partners that act in rural areas and the challenges they are faced with.

Compared to cities, rural areas not only suffer from poorer coverage and network availability, but also show a Digital Divide linked to lower uptake, i.e. the actual use of digital resources. As a recent World Bank summary of findings states, “uptake is a bigger problem today than coverage. Africa’s uptake gap has widened: […] while 70 percent of Africa’s regional population have availability of mobile internet, less than 25 percent are using it. […] This uptake gap is highest in rural areas and informal enterprises; it is also high for older and poorer women and rural households.” In order to be truly inclusive, North-South research partnerships must therefore be aware of both dimensions of the Digital Divide: access and coverage on the one hand, and uptake on the other hand.

Fixed broadband subscriptions per 100 people, 2019
Fixed broadband subscriptions per 100 people, 2019Image: Our World in Data

Principles for Digital Development
Image: Principles for Digital Development

Principles for Digital Development

Designed primarily for practitioners in international cooperation, these principles nevertheless contain aspects that are very relevant in international research partnerships. See the webpage for more details