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Confronting the scarcity of digital skills among the poor in developing countries

Jeffrey James

Development Policy Review, 2021, vol. 39, issue 2, 324-339

Abstract: Motivation As part of the second digital divide”, the scarcity of digital skills among the “bottom billion” in poor countries has been noted in the literature. The typical policy response to this daunting situation is to directly increase the supply of these missing resources. The article does not dispute the need for such policy, but argues in favour of supplementary interventions that bypass this scarcity in a bid to bring the benefit of digital technologies to people living in poverty. Purpose To describe and compare the components of a package of policies to address the scarcity of digital skills in poor countries. The package comprises an increase in the supply of these skills, a choice of technologies that make few demands on them, and to find substitutes that can indirectly supply information from the Internet to those who need it. Approach and methods The approach is based on Albert Hirshman’s distinction between trait‐making, which seeks to increase the supply of resources in short supply, and trait‐taking, which accepts those resources as being given temporarily in the making of policy. The complementary approaches are explained and compared in detail with the use of numerous examples. Findings The brief answer of how best to respond to the lack of digital skills in poor countries is that all components of the policy package are needed, because they make different demands, deal with different aspects of the problem, use different methods and operate in different time periods. With respect to the trait‐taking alternatives, I show the need to make better use of local resources, institutions and cultures, because these are what are available. Policy implications Although most policies to deal with the scarcity of digital skills in poor countries seek directly to increase their supply in schools and other places, this will often be a long and difficult process. For this and other reasons, supplementary policies are also needed to bypass the shortage and yield the benefits of information technology to people living in poverty, within a relatively short period of time.

Date: 2021
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