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Digital Literacy: A Top Priority for Sustainable Development

Savannah Hundley


Digital literacy should be a top priority for those who are trying to create sustainable growth. Having the ability to navigate the internet and understand its benefits and pitfalls is essential for individuals to connect to the world and reap the benefits of an interconnected digital world. Unfortunately, Africa has an unusually large percentage of the population which lacks connection. Currently, around 88 percent of the continent lacks internet connectivity. This means these countries lack the benefits of being connected to the internet and also they lack digital literacy if they ever receive internet access.

Digital literacy has multiple components including: being able to sort misinformation and fact, recognizes phishing scams, understanding what information should be kept private, understanding how companies can track online interactions, and how to sufficiently uses online programs such as email and social media, which is especially important for social connections and business interactions. With modern technology, it is impossible to participate in the world economy without proper access to the internet. To give a frame of reference for what a lack of digital literacy can look like, it is important to understand what skills are included. For instance, there are 40 countries in which over 50 percent of the population does not know how to attach a file to an email. To most, this is a simple skill, but when there has never been an introduction to using such technology the task can be impossible.

In addition to lack of access to technology itself, low literacy rates in many developing nations act as another barrier to entry even if internet access was available. In Sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, the average literacy rate is around 67 percent. This makes the internet impossible to access in a way that does not make those who cannot read and write vulnerable. It makes fact checking videos or sales promotions more difficult and makes it harder to check for scams.

Being able to navigate the internet effectively opens up new opportunities for people of all ages. Even those who are not working in a field traditionally associated with technology can benefit. For example, women’s cooperatives in developing nations need to be able to navigate platforms such as Instagram and Facebook to sell their products. For instance, a women’s cooperative in Akrich, in the Al Haouz province of Morocco, spends their time making rugs in between taking care of their homes and children. These rugs are works of art they spend painstaking amounts of time creating. Unfortunately, they lack digital literacy skills. This makes it difficult for them to advertise their products and given their distance from any markets their products are not easily accessible meaning they cannot charge the true worth of the rugs.

Through the High Atlas Foundation, an organization which helps support women’s cooperatives, has created a website for the women to sell their products. Regrettably, since the women do not have digital literacy their sons and husbands are needed to run the website. This means a program meant to empower women and show them they are capable of anything and to help them become financially independent of their male family members is hindered as the need for men arises. Children should also be taught digital literacy, even if currently they lack access. If children are digital literacy it increases the likelihood the quality of life of the child will be higher in the future. Being digitally literate for children increases future job opportunities and increases their ability to be independent.

While it is known that digital literacy is essential for continuing development, there are issues around increasing digital literacy in developing countries, which act as roadblocks. For instance, a lack of literacy acts as an obstacle. If a person cannot read, it makes the internet less accessible and makes it more difficult for people to use it for development purposes such as entering new markets. There is also variability in how digital literacy should be approached, which makes training teachers to introduce the subject matter difficult. Different areas have different levels of access and need for the internet.

Teaching the proper skills and approaches is instrumental in effectively teaching digital literacy. There is also a connectivity access issue, which is difficult to address. There are areas which lack internet access completely. This raises the question of how we introduce digital literacy. People in these areas still deserve to have access to these skills, especially children who may want the option to move and pursue other career options.

While there are many issues which act as barriers to introducing digital literacy, it is essential to global development and making the world a more connected and equitable place.

Savannah Hundley is a graduate student at Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy at the University of Virginia. She is an intern with the High Atlas Foundation in Morocco.

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