from Net Politics and Digital and Cyberspace Policy Program

The Link Between Internet Access and Economic Growth Is Not as Strong as You Think

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February 28, 2017

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Mark Graham, Nicolas Friederici and Sanna Ojanperä are researchers at the Oxford Internet Institute. They recently published The Impact of Connectivity in Africa: Grand Visions and the Mirage of Inclusive Development.

Mark Zuckerberg recently published a manifesto about the future of Facebook and our increasingly technology-saturated world. In it, he argued "Connecting everyone to the internet is…necessary for building an informed community." For those familiar with Zuckerberg’s statements, this is a familiar claim. He argues that not only should we connect everyone in the world to the internet, but that doing so is a necessary step in solving some of the planet’s most pernicious problems.

Zuckerberg is not alone in this thinking. Huge sums of money have been invested in projects that connect the billions of people who lack an internet connection. These schemes tend to present digital connectivity as a mechanism to achieve key social and economic developmental goals. This is especially true in Africa--the part of the world with both the lowest incomes and rates of connectivity.

Because of the vigor with which such claims are made, and the vast resources that tech companies are able to deploy, we decided to examine the actually existing evidence base that might support them. In a new paper, we set out to test those claims.

In it, we analyzed a wide range of policy documents and reports, and found widespread claims that increasing connectivity will lead to economic growth and social development. One report for instance, notes that “The internet is a tremendous, undisputed force for economic growth and social change.” What is noteworthy is that those reports tend to either not cite evidence or support claims with non-rigorous and non-peer-reviewed studies.

Some go further to assert than not only will more connectivity lead to growth, but can also reduce inequality despite the fact that there is little comprehensive evidence to suggest that it can actually do so. Those reports are sprinkled with quotes such as:

“Today, armed with little more than a smartphone, anyone — regardless of where they were born or how much they earn — can start a business, record a music video, crowdfund an invention, take courses with Nobel Prize-winning professors, or even launch a successful campaign for office.”

“[T]he impact of ICTs on income growth and poverty alleviation are undeniable, and greater adoption of ICTs in lower-income groups will accelerate income gains at the base of the economic pyramid.”

None of this is to say that there are not some responsible, nuanced and careful assessments of the impacts of connectivity. The 2016 World Development Report from the World Bank is measured in its assessment that increased connectivity has boosted growth in some instances, but that overall it has created winners and losers. However, such publications are a small minority.

The question then is why, in the absence of a solid evidence base, such fantastic visions about the transformative power of digital connectivity abound. Our assertion is that ‘self-evident’ discourses of connectivity allow policymakers to point to shiny new technological fixes rather than focus on the messy business of how the political economy of any given context works to (usually unfairly) allocate power and wealth.

Twenty years ago, James Ferguson famously asked ‘what do aid programs do besides fail to help poor people?’ Our worry in the context of visions like those of Mark Zuckerberg is not just that the massive resources invested in connecting the world’s disconnected will be wasted. It is also that by framing development and inequality as something that can be solved with more connectivity, we distract from the real structural economic processes that serve to widen inequalities and produce poverty. We should be concerned when developmental interventions don’t work. But we should be even more worried when we think important issues have been effectively addressed when they have not.

None of this is to say that information and communication technologies do not have a role to play in international development. Yet we do have a responsibility to ensure that, when so much is at stake, more of our interventions are grounded in a solid evidence base from the world’s economic margins rather than the hopes of Silicon Valley billionaires.

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