Mind the gap – Why it is imperative to close the digital skills divide amid the pandemic

The recent outbreak of new Covid-19 cases across the region are stark reminders of two things – that we still have a long road ahead of us before life can return to a semblance of normalcy, and that the pandemic’s impact is especially hard hitting on developing and the less developed world, further worsening the economic and social gap.

Earlier this year, McKinsey predicted that the end of the pandemic is in sight for some parts of the world, especially developed countries where vaccines are becoming more easily available. Since then, the outbreak worsened dramatically with developing countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America reporting rises in Covid-19 cases and deaths. Even in advanced economies such as Hong Kong and Singapore where the coronavirus has mostly been contained, a much-hoped for travel bubble had to be postponed yet again amid concerns about a resurgence in cases.

For many of the developing and least developed countries, the resulting delay in returning to normal will have serious knock-on effects on businesses, mental health, and education, and highlights the urgency of bringing a more inclusive and equal world. An effective way to achieve this is through the innovative application of digital technology.

A technology-driven response to the pandemic

Singapore for instance, has been swift in leveraging technology in its public health response. Technological applications ranging from a suite of contact tracing services, blockchain-powered digital health certificates to AI-driven temperature screening gantries are rolled out to help the city-state get back on its feet as fast as possible.

In a bid to boost local spending on the retail and tourism sectors, the Singapore government also distributed S$320 million worth of tourism e-vouchers through SingPass, the national digital identity system to its citizens. For its F&B sector, the government also introduced the Hawkers Go Digital programme to encourage its hawkers to adopt and accelerate the unified e-payment solution by June 2021. Meanwhile in Indonesia, a national online shopping festival has been launched to help revive consumer spending, looping in 70 e-commerce platforms to join in the effort.

While the methods may vary, what’s clear is that much more attention is needed to ensure that people in developing and least developed world are equipped with the digital skills, so that they can tackle the pandemic as well as find innovative solutions to grow the economy. For that to happen, we need quality training that not just provide concrete skills, but also enable learners to create more opportunities for everyone in the digital era.

Closing the digital skills gap in Southeast Asia

In its Future of Jobs report for 2020, the World Economic Forum has found that individuals and communities most negatively affected by Covid-19 “are likely to be those that are already most disadvantaged”, deepening existing inequalities. The report estimates that by 2025, some 85 million jobs may be displaced, while 97 million new roles may emerge that are more adapted to the shift in division of labor between humans, machines and algorithms.

Even in Singapore where digital technologies were long embraced before the pandemic, there is still a skills gap present in the workforce. In fact, a study conducted in early 2021 estimates that the manpower-dependent city-state needs to groom an additional 1.2 million digital workers by 2025 to remain competitive.

Recognition of this growing digital divide and the potential jobs disruption were what motivated the International Finance Corporation (a member of the World Bank Group) and Alipay to join hands in 2018 and launch the 10×1000 Tech for Inclusion philanthropic initiative, with the aim of training 10,000 emerging tech talents and leaders over ten years.

Our hope is that these talents will bring not only new innovations and growth to their own companies or institutions, but also inspire, motivate, and help cultivate 100,000 emerging talents in their home markets and countries, by sharing their experiences, mentoring rising stars, or passing on new opportunities.

A case in point is Indonesian e-commerce start-up Aruna, whose two co-founders were among the initiative’s recent trainees, and whose platform connects local fishermen directly to customers, to help them earn more from their daily catch and break out of poverty. Aruna is also cultivating “local heroes”, namely younger residents of coastal cities and villages who help educate and influence fishermen about the benefits of going digital.

On 24 May this year, the initiative introduced a brand-new online platform featuring the Fintech Foundation Programme, with over 160 practitioners enrolled from 17 Asian countries. Such forms of dedicated digital training – featuring expert Fintech lecturers from around the world – will be able to inculcate the mindset of using technology to further inclusion, cultivate leadership while providing learners with the exposure to industry insights and trends.

As Rosy Khanna, Regional Industry Director, South Asia and East Asia & Pacific, IFC highlighted in her speech during the launch of the Fintech Foundation Program, “The 2021 cohort has certainly joined during a very unusual time for humanity, making your roles, insights and actions all the more critical to help countries recover sustainably from the global pandemic.” 

The Covid-19 pandemic is proving to be a global challenge that requires all the innovation and determination that our world can bring together to overcome. As we brace ourselves to face this extended health and economic crisis, the world needs localized and long-term solutions that can help end extreme poverty and boost shared prosperity. 

That’s why we believe that closing the digital skills gap in regions such as Southeast Asia and training their future tech leaders is an urgent need, and the way forward to building a healthier, more inclusive, and sustainable world.