Addressing Nepal's digital divide

Human rights may be one way to narrow the digital technology gap between Kathmandu and Kalikot


Nepal created a Digital Nepal Framework a few years ago, sparking conversations about the digitisation of services.

Investments in digital businesses, such as fintech, by startups and established businesses has accelerated inline with the massive increase in connectivity and internet penetration over the last decade. In the social sector, NGOs are also working to integrate digital technologies into their existing programs.

This drive to digitise must, however, occur alongside concerted efforts to think about and shape digital transformation, this is the social consequences of digital technologies. This is the job of practitioners and thought-makers including journalists, policy makers, social actors, researchers, and civil society organisations.

Researcher and futurist Roy Amara writes: ‘We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.’ The is perhaps most visible when historians often organise the distant human past around dominant technological tools of the epoch -- the stone age, the iron age, the bronze age.

Closer to our time, we forget that the widespread adoption of electricity changed our sleep and socialisation patterns. The availability of affordable household appliances impacted household power dynamics and brought women into the workforce.

Even before Tinder, anthropologist Laura Ahern’s work on Nepal shows that adoption of the technology of literacy and letter writing shifted courtship and marriage patterns.

Yet, telling the story of technology and society in this way suggests that technology is always the driving force, overwhelming social institutions. Instead, there is ample evidence that economics, politics, law, and cultural norms have a significant bearing on the development and adoption of technologies.

Consider the case of electric vehicles in Nepal. There was a massive slowdown in the rate of EV adoption a few years ago, but in the last year, the rate has accelerated dramatically. Both slowdown and acceleration were direct consequences of tax laws rather than any technological factor.

As with previous technologically powered disruptions, digital transformations are likely to leave some better off and leave some behind. The manner in which we implement digitisation (both how we set up the technology and how we design the laws, practises and cultures that govern them) will at least influence, if not determine, these consequences.

How do we assess the possible consequences of our choices? What ethical and moral system do we use to guide our debates and decisions? These are questions philosophers will debate over lifetimes. Practitioners should take inspiration from the old saying that ‘perfect is the enemy of good’ and find a ‘good enough’ system.

A human rights based approach is a good enough solution that will make a positive impact in the shortest possible time for three reasons. First, governments and other powerful institutions in the developing world are familiar with and notionally bought into the framework of human rights. Human Rights, while not always realised in practice, do carry both moral and legal weight in negotiations with the powers-that-be.

Second, there are a large number of civil society organisations and activists who have long advocated for their causes through a human-rights based framework. Adding digital transformation as one element of their work will be quicker, cheaper and more effective than seeking new frameworks and new advocates.

Third, the various international human rights treaties to which governments are parties can be used as both legal and moral leverage. These legal instruments provide a framework for multiple actions including public interest litigation, public advocacy and the production of model policies.

good enough approach to digital transformation would also prioritise securing existing rights in light of the digital rather than emphasising the creation of new rights. Seeking to respect, protect, and fulfil existing rights, such as that to a free and compulsory basic education, is sufficient to undertake critical debates about digital transformation.

Take for example the ongoing debates, in public and in closed forums, between educators in response to extended school closures during the pandemic. Pointing to the GoN’s constitutional and international commitment to free basic education, some have argued that state-driven digital learning initiatives are  inherently problematic in a society where digital access is limited.

Pointing to the same commitments, others, including me, specifically critique the poor design and inaccessibility of digital learning platforms that result in the exclusion of those at the digital margins - people with some internet access but limited digital literacy.

This debate demonstrates that new rights, such as that to internet access, are already implicitly captured within the existing framework of an obligation to respect, protect and fulfil extant rights.

The digital education debates triggered by the pandemic also illustrated a major gap in human-rights based approaches. In Nepal, most of the rights-based arguments emanate from organisations funded by bilateral and multilateral development agencies who push ideas representing the consensus reached by the global development industry.

This industry primarily funds work on closing the equality gap within countries. This funding limits Nepali thought-makers and practitioners compelling them to tackle in-country issues such as the differences in internet access between Kathmandu and Kalikot. An exclusive focus in-country marginalisation obscures us from the increasing divergence in power, wealth and digital infrastructure between countries and societies.

That digital infrastructure, such as technological platforms, are instruments of power is evident in that the Trump Administration chose to apply pressure on China specifically through Huawei to curtail its dominance of the platforms enabling a new generation of telecommunications technologies.

Superior digital engineering abilities and facilitative investment policies have allowed the Global North and China to design digital platforms that capture disproportionate amounts of wealth and power from the global economy. Even in more mundane digital services, for example the ability to deploy cloud computing applications at scale, the average 'privileged' engineering student in Kathmandu faces a meaningful digital disadvantage in comparison to their peers in Oslo, Helsinki, or London. This divide has significant economic and social implications.

Yet, these forms of divergence and inequity at the global scale get very little space in the national discourse in Nepal. Practitioners and thought-makers taking a right-based approach to influence digital transformation should be aware of this glaring gap in the worldview of their funding agencies. Undoubtedly, specific interventions and structural policy changes are needed to close the in-country differences in access to basic services.

Undoubtedly, these matter immediately and in the long term. But without changes to Nepal’s position in the global economy, the best we can hope for is to bring people up to some ‘basic’ level. The experiences of South Korea, Taiwan, and China demonstrate that investing in closing the gap between nations can, and perhaps must, run in parallel with ensuring access to health, education and economic opportunities for all citizens.

Sakar Pudasaini, Founder at Karkhana, explores innovation, technology, education, and their social consequences in Makeshift, a new monthly column in the Nepali Times.

Sakar Pudasaini