Addressing the digital divide in the Tropics

Padar Island, Indonesia

Personnel Image

Written By

Hannah Gray

Publish Date

30 June 2021

Creating a brighter future for the Tropics worldwide

Ten years ago, James Cook University’s Vice Chancellor and President, Professor Sandra Harding AO initiated a data analysis project to answer the question: Is life in the Tropics getting better? Soon, the project was supported by university and research institution partners around the world. Though the initial aim was to create a one-time report about the condition of life in the Tropics, the State of the Tropics Report has become an annual event that brings advocacy for the region and provides a foundation for change.

With a background in biological science, Ann Penny initially joined the State of the Tropics project in 2013 as a writer contributing to the report. Within a year, she became Project Manager and has worked passionately in the role ever since. “It’s a really unique project to be a part of,” Ann says. “I’m a scientist by trade, but this project covers such a scope of fields, from economics to public health. It’s based in a university, it’s multidisciplinary, and it covers a huge and very important geographical area of the world.”

The State of the Tropics project is driven by JCU, but its work is purposed with serving the Tropics. “The aim of this project is, yes, to share and synthesize knowledge, but really it is to be an advocate for this part of the world,” Ann says. “Though the report expands the lens for looking at this region, what we’re really doing is advocating for the people, communities, and ecosystems of the Tropics with the message that this part of the world is integral to achieving sustainable development.

“If we are going to have a safe, healthy, prosperous future for the entire planet, then we really need to focus on this region where so many critical issues of our time are unfolding.”

One result of the project that demonstrates its impact is the United Nations’ recognition of June 29 as International Day of the Tropics. “The State of the Tropics project was an integral part of the campaign together with the Australian Government that pursued that recognition from the United Nations,” Ann says. “We worked really hard on that campaign, and it was a big step for us in terms of the Tropics being recognised as an important focus for development.”

A weaving village near Muang Ngoi, Laos

Digging into the digital divide

On this year’s International Day of the Tropics, Ann and her colleagues will present their focus report for 2021 titled, “The Digital Divide in the Tropics”.

Over the last decade, the use of digital technologies in society has grown exponentially. The COVID-19 pandemic expedited that growth as many of us left our schools, workplaces, and social settings and became more dependent than ever on technology to connect us to the outside world. This sudden and extreme increase in dependence has sparked many conversations about the “digital divide” that exists between populations who have access to digital technologies, and those who do not.

However, the notion of the digital divide is not a new one; the State of the Tropics leadership group had already chosen it as a focus before the arrival of COVID-19.

“It was in 2019 and it was actually the last time that the State of the Tropics leadership group was able to meet in person,” Ann says. “We were discussing potential focus points and we recognised that the role of digital technologies, or lack of digital technologies, throughout the Tropics would be an important focus point in the following years.”

The digital divide can be observed through three levels of impact.

The first level of the divide is the matter of access. Understanding this level is like asking: As a person living in the Tropics, do you have access to digital technologies? What do you have access to? Can you access a telephone, a radio, a television? A step up in the access level is access to a mobile phone, internet communications, broadband, and satellite communications.

The second level is the matter of utility. As a person living in the Tropics, if you do have access to digital technology, do you know how to use it and understand its utility? This understanding is referred to as digital literacy. “In some cases, access to technology doesn’t change the way people operate in the Tropics because they don’t necessarily need to use it or know to use it in a way that reinvents or benefits their everyday life,” Ann says.

The third level of the divide is the matter of content. If you have access to digital technology and the digital literacy to use it effectively, is its content relevant to you? Will it bring greater convenience into your life? Will it help you make more money? Will it keep you safer?

The digital divide is further complicated by regional differences within the Tropics. Ann suggests that for the majority of the Tropics, the divide is apparent even at the first, most basic level.

“The very latest data that we have, which is from 2019, says that less than fifty per cent of people in the Tropics use the internet,” Ann says. “For us, coming from a place where the internet is ubiquitous and we use it every day, that’s a challenging thing to think about.”

Despite being considered an essential tool for the running of our workplaces, schools, health systems, and everyday life, the internet is something completely irrelevant to half of the Tropics’ population. If the issue is a matter of access, then our greatest asset isn’t even an option to the people living and working in those regions.

“When you consider how countries develop, how economic systems work, or how political systems work, the internet changes all of those things. If half of a region’s population can’t access that, then you have an unbalanced share of opportunities and quality of life.”

State of the Tropic Project Manager, Ann Penny

A fisherman in Indonesia using traditional techniques
Solar PV modules in Rarotonga, Cook Islands
Left: A fisherman in Indonesia using traditional techniques and equipment. Right: Solar PV modules in Rarotonga, Cook Islands.

Advocacy, awareness, and action

For such a complex issue, there is no simple solution to be lined up and funded straight away. Ann urges that the main aim of the Report is advocacy, to help spark appropriate, practical action.

“The true goal of the project is to act as an advocate for focus, funding, capacity development — all of those things need to happen in the regions of the Tropics,” Ann says. “The truth is, closing the digital divide is inevitable. Eventually, the whole world will be connected, whether through new satellite connections, or by other means.

“What is important is that the people who aren’t connected at the moment are prepared for when they are. It’s important for them to have the means to make the most of being connected and benefit as much as possible from it. If they are prepared for the change, it would allow them to leap frog, so to speak, normal development pathways by using this technology.”

The answer, Ann says, is education in digital literacy. This education could prepare people, communities, businesses and industries to better navigate, or even avoid, the risks associated with new technologies.

“The message of the report is essentially that technology is great — it’s a tool that helps us do many, many things,” Ann says. “But its success and utility are dependent on the social and cultural construct in which it exists. So the education and preparation of people, industries, and infrastructure contributes to how successfully that technology is integrated into a society.”

Want to know more about the State of the Tropics and how the digital divide impacts the Tropics? The State of the Tropics Report 2021 (PDF, 5821 KB) explores the impact of communication technology, education and digital literacy, and the political implications of connectivity on the Tropics worldwide.

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