Since 2009, the 20th February has been observed as the World Day of Social Justice, endorsed by the United Nations. The aim of the day is to “support of the efforts of the international community to search for solutions to achieve sustainable development, poverty eradication, promotion of full employment and decent work, universal social protection, gender equity and access to social well-being and justice for all.”(1)
For 2021, on its 13th year, the theme is ‘A Call for Social Justice in the Digital Economy,’ the official page for which can be found here. I am hoping to use this space to spread awareness of the growing injustices surrounding the digital economy and explain the significance of this theme for society as we know it today (global pandemic and all).
The UN provides an all-encompassing definition, below:
“Social justice is an underlying principle for peaceful and prosperous coexistence within and among nations. We uphold the principles of social justice when we promote gender equality, or the rights of indigenous peoples and migrants. We advance social justice when we remove barriers that people face because of gender, age, race, ethnicity, religion, culture or disability.”(2)
As outlined by Deloitte:
“The digital economy is economic activity that results from billions of everyday online connections among people, businesses, devices, data and processes. The backbone of the digital economy is hyperconnectivity which means growing interconnectedness of people, organisations, and machines that results from the Internet, mobile technology and the internet of things (IoT).”(3)
If you want to know more and have 5 minutes, read this article by Forbes.(4)
The key element to understand is that, although the growth of technology has and will continue to generate great benefits, its rapid growth leaves many people behind. As a result, there is an increasingly widening divide between the digitally included and excluded populations.
From a global perspective, there are stark differences in internet usage, ranging from 87% of the population in high-income countries to under 17% in low-income countries.(5,6)
Despite these alarmingly polarised global percentages, it is within these countries and their populations that the widening digital divide is occurring. The sheer volume of and dependency on internet usage in higher-income countries mean that the division between those digitally included and excluded is increasingly detrimental.(7)
Whilst mobile technology contributes to financial inclusion in countries without an established financial structure, technological developments in middle- and high-income countries can force displaced labourers into lower paid roles and prohibit some people from reaching their full potential.
It is not the technology we need to blame for these consequences, the technology itself does not create income disparity and other inequalities. In fact, the Centre for Social Justice describes the internet as “a powerful catalyst for change. It is a job creator, a wealth creator, and a driver of innovation, enterprise and national productivity”(8)
It is that we have allowed such unequal access to the rapidly growing economy which thrives due to technological growth. We have enabled, therefore, the digital economy to become a facilitator for widening inequality and social injustice.
Which is why the World Economic Forum has identified widening digital divides as one of the largest threats, in its 2021 Global Risks Report. And, why the UN have chosen to call for social justice in the digital economy for their 2021 World Day of Social Justice theme.
Today in the UK, more than 8/10 adults are going online every day. These ‘digital citizens’ are experiencing the personal, social and cultural benefits directly linked to internet use and as a result, their quality of life is improved.
Although this may seem like a good proportion, the digital divide (those who can access and use vs. those that cannot) is growing as technology is becoming more advanced. Additionally, as digital skills and knowledge become more central in our society, the digitally excluded are unable to find work, pay bills, access public service and education. As the digital economy continues to grow at an unprecedented speed, the digitally excluded are increasingly marginalised and stigmatised.
Worst of all, but unsurprisingly, digital exclusion is felt more by individuals who are experiencing multiple social disadvantages. This is how it becomes a social justice issue, as it goes against the UN’s aim of “sustainable development, poverty eradication, promotion of full employment and decent work, universal social protection, gender equity and access to social well-being and justice for all.”
These problems were persisting prior to the global pandemic. A pandemic which has, not only revealed shocking health inequalities, but also social injustices due to heavy reliance on the digital economy during this time.
Businesses, services and organisations have moved online. Some are thriving, especially if they have big stakes in the digital economy. Others have closed, gone bankrupt or ceased operations.
Office workers, school and university students are working remotely. Friends and families are connecting virtually. Some are thriving, especially if they have access to and confidence using the technology. Others are getting left behind, becoming isolated and falling below the poverty line.
We must take political and social measures, in the form of a consistent and coherent digital inclusion policy, to ensure that those living in our most deprived communities are not there due to exclusion from the digital community.
I would recommend reading the Centre for Social Justice report, ‘Social Justice in the Digital Age’ which details policy recommendations covering access, safety and security, leadership and infrastructure.
If you know of someone at risk of being digitally excluded, help them get support. Good Things Foundation(9) is a great place to start.
Written by Lizzie Skillen, Graduate Trainee for Tower Hamlet Homes