What’s missing from the World Development Report?

“The main message of the Report is that digital development strategies need to be much broader than ICT strategies. “Connectivity for all” remains an important goal and a tremendous challenge. But to bring the largest benefits, countries also need to create the right environment for technology. When analog components to digital investments are absent, the development impact will often be disappointing. But when countries build strong analog foundations, they will reap ample digital dividends – in faster growth, more jobs, and better services.”

This is the finding of the latest World Development Report (WDR) just published by the World Bank. In many respects, it’s a comprehensive report and a sound analysis of the (potential and real) contribution that mobile and web technologies have brought and the challenges still to overcome. It covers a great breadth of countries from the UK to Uruguay and France to the Philippines. Its arguments that there is still a significant digital divide in the world and that new risks are in some cases neutralising the benefits of increased digital access are both reminders that meaningful connectivity for all is a long way off.

What caught my attention reading through the report and from listening to the authors launch the publication at a recent event, however, was not so much what the report contained, as what it left out. In its discussion of digital dividends, the report proclaims that ‘growth, jobs, and services are the most important returns of digital investments’ and that digital technologies ‘help businesses become more productive; people find jobs and greater opportunities; and governments deliver better public services to all’. Few would argue that these are tremendously important and it’s true that for many people nowadays, the process of finding work or study opportunities or the ease with which they can access services has been transformed. Yet, the report is strangely quiet about the more personal, social aspects of the digital dividend and divide. What effect, for example, has the rise of digital technology had upon social relations, family networks, happiness and wellbeing? These are important questions that cannot be overlooked. After all, on their death bed how many people think to themselves ‘I’ve lived a good life, but I wish my labour productivity had been greater’?

Rather, the World Development Report chooses to focus upon people as primarily economic units – consumers, workers, sellers. Its terminology refers to ‘labour productivity’, ‘consumer welfare’ and ‘competition’. A big ‘yes, but’ is necessary here. Yes, labour productivity and labour-saving technologies make our lives easier in many ways, but what impacts do they have on psychological wellbeing? Yes, ‘consumer welfare’ is important, but can we look more broadly at welfare rather than through the prism of a consumer? And yes, competition can be a valuable spur to public sector efficiency and greater choice, but it too carries its risks. This is not to say that any of the report’s findings are wrong or undesirable, it is merely to highlight that in its understanding of development, the WDR takes an overly economic approach that sidelines other aspects of the development question. The very important social aspects of development that are also being transformed by digital technologies deserve greater consideration.

Having said this, it is pleasing to see the WDR devote considerable attention to the question of public services. Improved access and quality of services such as health and education are vital components – not just of a healthy economy, but of a thriving society. Here, the potential impact of technology is huge. Proactive disclosure of government data, citizen monitoring of services and participatory policymaking are all massively aided by digital technologies and the report does a good job of capturing some of the ways in which digital citizen engagement is driving change. Although the report to some extent still views people as either consumers or producers (its sections on education, for example, concentrate more on career skills than personal development or fulfilment), its broader focus on engagement, inclusion and participation chime with the work that we aim to support in sub-Saharan Africa. As the report acknowledges, the gains to be made here are not principally economic in nature; rather issues like freedom of expression and participation in public life are valuable in and of themselves.

Overall, the WDR makes an important contribution to our understanding of the transformative potential of ICT and the associated risks. For anyone looking to understand how the economy is being transformed by the application of digital technologies or how governments are reacting to the spread of such tools to improve services, this report is a must read. But for those interested in the social and personal aspects of the digital dividend, this may not be the best place to start. Perhaps the next WDR might focus more on these questions, now that the economic and political case for reaping the rewards of the digital dividend has been established?