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World Bank: What do the poor need – clean water, or email ... take a guess

Amid push to bring internet to everyone, digital divide widens for developing countries

The One Laptop Per Child project: kids at the Kagugu Primary School, Kigali, Rwanda, get to grips with new computers

Efforts to expand IT and internet connectivity in developing countries are producing results that are "far less than expected," according to the World Bank.

The 2016 Digital Dividends report [PDF] said that when it comes to quality of life and economic development, campaigns to bring poorer nations online have failed to meet their goals.

Researchers found that, despite the growth in internet connectivity, productivity and economic growth in those newly connected regions have been far less than anticipated. Additionally, the report found that the divide between the rich and poor has grown, and more than 60 per cent of the world's population remains offline.

The findings suggest that the efforts of many technology companies and non-profits to offer internet connectivity as a way of bringing large populations out of poverty will not accomplish their goal, and in many cases will only serve to increase the income gap between the wealthy and the hard-up in those areas.

One reason for this is a continuing gap in education and in the business climate in many developing countries. With large numbers of the labor force lacking access to education and job skills, the introduction of technology is serving to automate work and cost jobs for the poor while only creating opportunities for those with wealth and access to job training.

"Public sector investments in digital technologies, in the absence of accountable institutions, amplify the voice of elites, which can result in policy capture and greater state control," the report reads.

"And because the economics of the internet favor natural monopolies, the absence of a competitive business environment can result in more concentrated markets, benefiting incumbent firms."

In addition to worsening economic divides, the report found that the unequal access to technology also leads to a decline in free elections, giving government regimes tools to rig elections in their favor.

Rather than simply look to expand digital connectivity, the World Bank says, governments and institutions should invest in so-called "analog" factors including education, business growth and government oversight that will allow the growing connectivity to be used by a larger portion of the population and discourage abuse by government and powerful business groups.

"We must continue to connect everyone and leave no one behind because the cost of lost opportunities is enormous," said World Bank Group president Jim Yong Kim.

"But for digital dividends to be widely shared among all parts of society, countries also need to improve their business climate, invest in people's education and health, and promote good governance." ®

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