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Digital connectivity for development: lessons from BRICS

Beyond commerce and surveillance, one area where de-Americanizing the Internet is perhaps most likely to emerge is in the field of developmental communication, where the BRICS nations could demonstrate a significant impact. Four of the five members are considered to be‘developing’countries, with the exception of Russia, which appears in the top 50 highly developed countries (at number 49) of the Human Development Index, according to the 2019 UN Human Development Report.The other four rank at 79 (Brazil), 85 (China), 113 (South Africa) and 129 (India), out of the 189 countries for which data was analysed (Human Development Report, 2019).

As mentioned above, investment in digital infrastructure is seen as a crucial component for development in the BRICS countries.The Brazilian government’s Plano National de Banda Larga (National Broadband Plan), announced nearly a decade ago to meet the country’s growing Internet needs, has extended the fibre-optic network to the interior regions and installed submarine cables. In 2017 a public consultation for a new national connectivity plan, Internet para Todos (Internet for All) was introduced (Mari, 2018). By 2019, more than 67 per cent of households had access to the Internet. In South Africa, Internet penetration has reached nearly 60 per cent, partly as a result of the government’s‘SA Connect’ programme, in operation since 2013, aiming to provide affordable broadband access to public institutions, while the 2016 National Integrated ICT Policy White Paper aims to transform the country into ‘an inclusive and innovative digital and knowledge society’.

It is in China and India, though, that the impact of the Internet on development has been most profound. The growing use of mobile phones and digital platforms, made possible as a result of government and private initiatives on public Wifi, has expanded digital communication with a developmental dimension.This has helped millions of farmers and micro-entrepreneurs to improve their health, education and livelihoods. In 2015, India launched its ‘Digital India’ programme, supported by S75 billion from public and private investment in a phased manner. China’s mobile finance systems have become successful models and are being replicated in several developing countries where China has become deeply entrenched in the communication sector (Murphy and Carmody, 2015). Its ambitious project of building a ‘digital Silk Road’, with fibre-optic cables, mobile networks, satellite relay stations and data centres, has a strong developmental dimension (Hong, 2017b). The total amount of ICT aid to Africa between 2000 to 2014 amounted to just over 3 per cent of Chinese aid to the continent - $7.13 billion out ofS288 billion - ‘the ICTs could work as conduits for Chinese Internet-based industries’ - both hardware and software (Wang, Bar and Hong, 2020: 1505).

Less discussed internationally but an equally important developmental project is India’s Aadhaar (Sanskrit for ‘foundation’) - the world’s biggest biometric identification system run by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIAI) -which provides a unique identification number to 1.3 billion citizens to ensure that they receive entitlements under various welfare schemes in a transparent manner. Nandan Nilekani, a former Head of Infosys, who was the founding Chair of the UIAI notes that,‘instead of seeking to exert tighter control over the Internet within its borders, the country has created open digital platforms from scratch and tailored them to the Indian context. And instead of leaving them in the hands of a few private technology companies, the Indian government has built these systems as public goods’ (Nilekani, 2018: 21).

In 2012, the government launched the ambitious National Optical Fibre Network project (since renamed BharatNet), the world’s largest rural broadband project, to connect the country’s 250,000 gram-panchayats (village councils) with high-speed Internet ‘to deliver government services online’ (NITI Aayog, 2018: 89). The share of Indians with a digital financial account ‘has more than doubled since 2011, to 80 per cent, thanks in large part to the more than 332 million people who opened mobile phone-based accounts under the government’s Jan-Dhan Yojana, mass financial-inclusion programme’ (McKinsey Global Institute, 2019: 1). These

'Internet-driven changes, especially for India’s poor’, writes Agrawal,‘will reshape not only India, but, eventually, the global order’ (Agrawal, 2018: 8).

Such examples of Internet-driven, poverty-reduction programmes raise interesting questions about the efficacy and relevance of a largely Western-centred developmental discourse. As Unwin has argued, not only have the largely Western ICTs increased inequality in the pursuit of development, they have turned ICT4D on its head: ‘Instead of“ICTs for Development” (ICT4D) we have become increasingly and surreptitiously enmeshed in a world of“Development for ICTs” (D4ICT) where governments, the private sector, and civil society are all tending to use the idea of“development” to promote their own ICT interests’ (Unwin, 2017: 9).

Scholars originally from the BRICS nations have challenged Western-oriented and -originated discourses of development communication. The Nobel Laureate, Amartya Sen’s notion of‘development as freedom’ has had a profound impact on developmental thinking (Sen, 1999), More recent work has critiqued the political economy of development communication for focusing on the symptoms of underdevelopment articulated by Western-dominated international agencies and project-based initiatives, rather than investigating the causes of poverty and the agency of social movements and community communication (Dutta, 2011; Thomas, 2019).

Within Chinese intellectual space, there is growing recognition of the need for ‘South-South Development Cooperation from China and other emerging market economies’, which, it is argued, ‘is more likely to bring “quick wins” in poverty reduction and inclusive, sustainable growth’ (Lin and Wang, 2017: 6). China’s record of considerably reducing, if not eliminating, poverty is extraordinary: within the last three decades China has raised more than 700 million of its people out of poverty. Arguments for‘democratization in development thinking’, are becoming vocal, ‘several different paradigms could coexist, and developing countries could select from the menu, based on their own developmental needs’, ibid.: 14).

UNCTAD counsels that ‘special attention needs to be given to ways that can enable more countries to take advantage of the data-driven digital economy, as producers, innovators and exporters’ (UNCTAD, 2019). This has also been recommended by the World Bank (see World Bank, 2016 and 2018b) as well as a 2019 UN report, which acknowledges that ‘digital dividends coexist with digital divides’ and proposes ‘digital cooperation’ to ‘create a platform for sharing digital public goods, engaging talent and pooling data sets, in a manner that respects privacy, in areas related to attaining the Sustainable Development Goals’ (UN, 2019: 8). If such global ‘digital cooperation’ is to be achieved, BRICS nations could have a key role to perform, especially in relation to eliminating poverty.

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