Inequality of access to the Internet is greatest in the MENA region and likely to make post-Covid recovery more challenging, a new report says.
But the report, issued in mid-December by the U.S.-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, says user rates vary widely across the region, with those in Gulf Cooperation Council countries among the highest in the world.
Titled “COVID-19 and Internet Accessibility in the MENA Region”, the report assesses the readiness of countries in the Middle East and North Africa region to shift employment and education online, both in terms of Internet availability and digital literacy.
The authors, Alexander Farley and Manuel Langendorf, argue that increasing Internet accessibility and improving digital skills can build on governments’ efforts during the pandemic to promote a digitally-enabled economic recovery. Unequal access to the Internet will have a real-world impact on learning and make recovery more challenging for certain segments of society, they say.
They quote a World Bank report on Lebanon, for example, which found that around 60 percent of students “either do not have a computer or have to share it with at least three other family members.” Another recent estimate said only around 50 percent of Lebanese students were connected to online learning.
Digital Divide: The New Face of Inequality
The report notes that on average, around 66 percent of individuals overall and 73 percent of youth in Arab states used the Internet in 2020.
But, while the region is projected to have 160 million potential digital users by 2025, the digital gender gap is still the largest in the world, with women being 12 percent less likely than men to use the Internet.
The region is projected to have 160 million potential digital users by 2025, yet the digital gender gap is still the largest in the world, with women being 12 percent less likely than men to use the Internet
“Around 63 million women in the MENA region are not using mobile Internet, the main gateway to online content among most people,” says the report.
In addition to discriminative social norms, the report attributed gender exclusion to Internet affordability, safety and security, and a lack of literacy and digital skills. In 2020, it is estimated that the exclusion of women in the digital economy amounted to a GDP loss of $126 billion globally.
Langendorf, one of the report’s authors, wrote to Al-Fanar Media: “The MENA region is not a monolith. More women were using the Internet than men in Oman, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait. There was almost parity in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain. In Sudan and Palestine, the gender gap was around 5 percent in 2019. The biggest gap in Internet usage in Arab states was in Iraq with a 47.1 percent difference that year.”
Langendorf also highlighted the urban-rural divide in terms of internet availability, mobile ownership, and digital literacy in favor of urban areas.
“In Arab states, 82 percent of the urban population is covered by a 4G network vs. 51 percent of the rural population, according to the International Telecommunication Union,” he said. “The share of urban Internet users in Arab states is at 76 percent and in rural areas at 42 percent.”
Bridging the Divide
The report urges policy makers to focus more on making the digital transformation in the MENA region inclusive and bridging digital divides.
The impact of limited digital skills and remote education infrastructure became clear when the pandemic forced schools to shut down. Schoolchildren in the region have already lost an average of 0.6 years of learning due to these closures, say the World Bank statistics.
To overcome the poor quality transition into online education and students’ limited access to affordable Internet connections, telecommunication companies in Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, and Morocco provided free extra data or free access to several education websites between March 2020 and March 2021.
“Even as distance learning accelerates in MENA, digital divides will suppress access to millions of low-income people.”Alexander Farley
A co-author of the Wilson Center’s report
Computer applications and entrepreneurial skills were identified as the most valuable to Iraqi students, according to an evaluation of career development centres by the International Research & Exchanges Board (IREX).
Despite the challenges, Farley thinks the MENA region is on the brink of a distance learning revolution, especially for, but not limited to higher education.
“The number of platforms available to provide quality open content for higher education has grown considerably in the past three to four years,” he said. “New start-ups in the pipeline are poised to ride the wave of venture capital pumping into the digital economy.”
He cited a recent Bayt.com study that revealed that obtaining new skills was ranked higher than increasing salary as a career motivation for workers in the United Arab Emirates. “Greater workforce is interested in skills. Online platforms are poised to provide the access they seek,” he told Al-Fanar Media.
“Universities in the MENA region would do well to follow the labour market trends to offer continuous training, stackable certifications, and certificates to workers.”
Easing Regulatory Barriers
To truly embrace distance learning, Farley calls on governments and institutions to address regulatory barriers and accreditation standards that define schools by the acquisition of land and fixed capital.
“Higher education in MENA is exceptionally centralized, and states often regulate how much online instruction is allowed for higher education,” he wrote in an email.
“Jordan qualified only 30 percent virtual learning in higher education until the pandemic, opening the possibility for 100 percent online education for the first time. Increasing that cap would allow universities to access students in different ways.”
Besides high-speed Internet connection and compatible devices, Farley thinks that the heart of distance learning is flexibility—allowing people with different circumstances to participate in higher education. “Even as distance learning accelerates in MENA, digital divides will suppress access to millions of low-income people,” he said.
“Governments should focus on their digital development, facilitate the expansion of infrastructure that supports high-speed broadband, and offer income support to families that can’t afford subscription services.”
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Farley believes that distance education and blended learning will be permanently part of the new education paradigm, which needs to be fully accredited to prove its worth. “There is still a bias, and many proven benefits, to in-person instruction,” he wrote.
“In the near term, we believe online education will play a supplementary role, correcting endemic challenges within higher education in MENA, such as teaching critical thinking, entrepreneurship skills, original research, and design thinking.”
Distance learning may also fill many of the gaps that employers see in traditional higher education. “In that way, it may facilitate a shift to more practical and innovative training for youth,” Farley concluded.
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