How Digital Technologies Can Create Pathways Out of Poverty

In 2016, the United Nations passed a controversial non-binding resolution declaring internet access to be a human right. More accurately, it declared disruptions to internet access to be a human rights violation. At the time the resolution was passed, there was much criticism from many corners, particularly from people who had lived in a time before widespread internet access.

Just four years later, the recent pandemic has changed the perspective of many on the question of internet access as a right, even if they might not understand it yet. As it turned out, the global catastrophe laid a digital tech foundation that may yet bring millions of disadvantaged Filipinos into the middle-class.

Quiapo Manila, How Digital Technologies Can Create Pathways Out of Poverty
Photo Credit: Marfil Aquino

The crisis had forced the Philippine government to fast-track the rapid development of internet accessibility and digital infrastructure Philippines projects. Thanks to some timely decisions and partnerships with infrastructure providers such as the Aboitiz Group, many Filipinos on the periphery were finally able to gain reliable access to the internet for the first time in their lives. The modest and ongoing improvements in internet coverage and reliability these past two years have been nothing short of transformative.

Access to Digital Technologies Now Means Survival

Internet connections and the digital technologies they enable are now part and parcel of a decent life in the 21st century. Whether it’s participating in e-commerce, accessing critical knowledge resources, or booking remote consultations with a doctor, some level of participation in the online world is now the norm for most Filipinos, especially through mobile devices.

The pandemic made it painfully clear that people with limited or no internet access had far fewer jobs available to them. They were also, by far, less safe from the dangers of COVID-19 as they could not earn a living from home or exercise their right to obtain government services remotely. What’s more, they could neither participate in remote learning and upskilling nor benefit from the numerous e-commerce opportunities that would have afforded them a good income.

In other words, internet access is now just as important a need as electricity. The pandemic has proven that the lack of access shuts out less privileged individuals from educational opportunities, jobs, political leverage, their right to be heard, and even quality healthcare. As a practical matter, governments can no longer meaningfully claim to combat poverty if they do not take serious steps to ensure everyone has reliable internet access.

Democratizing Knowledge Combats Generational Poverty

The democratization of previously exclusive knowledge is perhaps the single biggest benefit entire communities get when they gain access to affordable and reliable high-speed internet connections. And while many bemoan the scale of misinformation that the internet and social media have brought, few can argue that it hasn’t been a net benefit overall.

Access to high-speed connections enables effective online learning and skills training, both of which are the foundation of developing competitive labor and entrepreneurial pools. Lower costs may also prevent the very misinformation that many fear, as people will no longer need to rely on “free data” that limits information access.

This is especially important for school-age Filipinos who already make up a disproportionately high percentage of the total population. Ensuring early, reliable, and speedy access to digital technologies now is bound to benefit younger individuals who will join our country’s workforce and business creators within a decade.

Digital Tech Opens Up Entrepreneurial Possibilities

While primarily intended to allow for remote learning and work-from-home arrangements, the increased availability of reliable broadband internet was also the impetus for tens of thousands of Filipinos to create online businesses.

The first nine months of the pandemic lockdowns from April to December 2020 saw 900,000 online businesses register with the Department of Trade and Industry. In contrast, only 1,700 businesses registered from January to March of that same year. 

This was likely an unintended but long-lasting benefit of the Philippine government’s pandemic response strategy. Still, the value of these new businesses in terms of contributing taxes, jobs, and other benefits to the economy - especially during a major crisis - cannot yet be calculated. Many Filipinos are likely to continue to benefit from this surge in online business well after pandemic restrictions are completely lifted.

Connectivity Brings Opportunity

The democratization of knowledge and wealth creation goes hand-in-glove. Filipino entrepreneurs and start-up creators are very likely to be inspired by ideas they come across online. What’s more, they are now more likely than ever to rely on online messaging tools to grow and develop networks of suppliers, customers, and collaborators.

Additionally, formerly thorny roadblocks such as understanding how to register one’s business or pay proper taxes have also been largely done away with, thanks to digital technologies. Being able to access this basic information on demand has been nothing short of emancipatory for entrepreneurial Filipinos lacking access to the right social networks.

Thanks to the work of the national government and its partners, the disaster that was COVID-19 turned into a win for many Filipinos - even if they may not necessarily feel it yet. The capacity-building and new opportunities enabled by the improved proliferation of digital technologies will not solve poverty overnight. But despite the current economic downturn, it may just make the dream of a poverty-free Philippines more manageable than it would have been just a few years ago.

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