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Digitalisation promoting human rights

Smartphones and Internet connections have changed the world. Anyone can get in touch with anyone else, and it is easier to access data. Digitalisation presents both opportunities and risks. The opportunities include technological development making it easier to assert and more successfully exercise human rights. But it also has downsides, such as the threat of surveillance and abuse, as well as the social divide and upheaval in the world of work. KfW has developed its own approaches for making use of digital technologies in development cooperation, keeping sight of the opportunities and the risks at all times.

Digitalisation as an Opportunity for human rights

Since digitalisation permeates all areas of life, it can help to achieve human rights and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Digitalisation not only affects technological developments; it also affects social developments.

Digital inclusion — Internet for everyone

In addition to the Internet, mobile phones have now also become very widespread and are ensuring access to information — whether in the form of mobile payment systems, SMS weather notifications or text messages to provide agricultural advice. However, the positive impacts of digitalisation mainly come to those who also have access to the Internet. This is highly disparate not only within countries, but also internationally. According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), in 2017, 84% of households had access to the Internet in industrialised countries, while this only came to 43% in emerging economies and was a mere 15% in the poorest nations.

The same applies to smartphones. It is true that the devices themselves are widely distributed in many of the world’s countries, but there are not always contracts or data plans to match. In 2015, there were 87 active contracts for mobile broadband usage per 100 residents in industrialised countries, 39 per 100 in emerging economies and 12 for each 100 inhabitants of the poorest countries.

The path to digital inclusion — worldwide access to the Internet for everyone — is still long, but progress is being made. Broadband connections are spreading. And the youth are leading the way; the proportion of young people who have access to the Internet is higher globally than that of adults. More than 80% of the world’s young people have online access.

To date, women have had less access to information technology than men around the world. This adversely affects their opportunities to participate socially and economically. Globally, the proportion of men that use the Internet is 12% higher than the proportion of women. Women express their opinions online only half as much as men, and they use digital media much less frequently to create their own content. Only 24% of all jobs in the digital sector are occupied by women. There is a risk of these imbalances growing wider still as digitalisation advances.

Digital inclusion — Internet for everyone

Risks in digitalisation

Naturally, digitalisation also poses challenges. What happens to the masses of data that are collected? Privacy must be protected. Information security is a particularly sensitive topic, encompassing the protection of personal data and cyber-security which involves keeping central systems safe. Freedom of expression and democratic control of data are prerequisites in order for digitalisation to advance human rights rather than restricting them, given that structures set up for public participation can also easily be subverted for purposes of manipulation and surveillance. There is also a danger that certain echelons of the population will be excluded; for instance, because they do not have access to a digitalised system or because the electricity supply in their region is inaccessible.

If information is primarily stored online, censorship and restriction of access to the Internet can have particularly severe consequences. Disparate use of information technology between different population groups or between men and women is also cause for concern from a human rights perspective. This gives particular significance to the idea of digital inclusion.

Aside from the issue of safeguarding personal rights, there are other risks in the social sphere. It is becoming apparent that digitalisation is making some jobs obsolete on one hand, while generating new ones on the other hand. Artificial intelligence and the use of robot learning could add to further upheaval. This also brings a growing pressure to engage in advanced training. The specific consequences of this trend cannot yet be foreseen. KfW is following this debate closely and is keeping sight of the risks in digitalisation.

Germany’s digital agenda

The “Digital Agenda” of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), which KfW helped to prepare, describes how German development cooperation can make use of digital technologies. It provides a framework for action to implement digital projects in German development cooperation. As part of the agenda, the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development sets five strategic objectives. Specifically, these are to:

• take advantage of digital innovation

• strengthen democratic processes

• help people seeking refuge

• create jobs that will be sustainable in the future

• guarantee human rights and participation

In this context, the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development emphasises that information and communication technology has impacts on all 17 of the UN’s SDGs, playing an essential role as a means of accomplishing them.

Hans-Peter Baur, Head of the Democracy, Human Rights, Gender Equality and Social Development Directorate at the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development

“The digital transformation promises the individual and wider society enormous potential for development, facilitating professional development, administrative efficiency, transparency and democratic participation. At the same time, the world faces new challenges. Where the Internet creates open spaces, there is a risk that these will be restricted. We stand for protecting basic democratic rights in cyberspace, such as the right to privacy and freedom of expression.In addition, we stand for net neutrality, and free, fair and equitable access to the Internet.In this way, we will create an open knowledge society in which people can shape their environment for the better.”

Hans-Peter Baur, Head of the Democracy, Human Rights, Gender Equality and Social Development Directorate at the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development

KfW’s digital approaches

Almost all KfW Development Bank projects now already include digital technologies. Furthermore, on behalf of the German Federal Government, KfW works in many sectors to manage the targeted implementation of projects geared towards IT solutions. During relevant projects, we check in advance whether the necessary preconditions exist in the partner country — in particular, legal foundations for data protection and IT security. KfW also support its partners with consultants to train the project executing agencies’ staff on data protection and IT security matters if necessary and ensures that any IT solutions meet nationally and internationally recognised standards.