An Urgent Need To Close The Digital Skills Divide Amid The Pandemic

By Ni Xingjun, Chief Technology Officer at Ant Group, Operator of Alipay

Recent events of new Covid-19 outbreaks across the region are reminding us that there is still a long road ahead of us before life could return to a semblance of normalcy, and that the coronavirus’ impact is hitting the developing and least developed world especially hard, 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 has worsened dramatically as developing countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America report rises in Covid-19 cases and deaths. Meanwhile, Malaysia continues to see a resurgence and increase in daily cases, the country is undergoing its third total lockdown in its efforts to contain and combat the coronavirus.

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 elevates the need to push forward the urgency of bringing a more inclusive and equal world. An effective way to achieve this is through the innovative application of digital technology.

Locally, digital tools such as the MySejahtera app – developed by the government of Malaysia – has been instrumental in assisting the country in managing the Covid-19 outbreaks, enabling contact tracing, allowing users to perform health self-assessment on themselves and their families, and also monitoring their health progress throughout the pandemic.

In a bid to boost local spending and accelerate the economic recovery, Malaysia launched the ePenjana initiative, set under the Short-Term Economic Recovery Plan (PENJANA) that is aimed at encouraging consumer spending. The initiative also seeks to instil safety practices through contactless payments and assist the public health authorities to facilitate contact tracing for Covid-19 through the MySejahtera application. Approximately 15 million Malaysians will stand to benefit from ePenjana, where the government provides RM50 ePENJANA credits, to be used for purchases through the selected e-Wallets service providers such as Touch ‘n Go e-wallet.

While the methods may vary across countries, 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 fast-arriving digital era.

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.

This is also set to affect many Malaysians. In PWC Malaysia’s “Digital resilience in a new world” survey on technology, jobs, and skills, 70 percent of respondents from the Malaysian public believe technology will change their current jobs in three to five years, but only a third (38 percent) said they are given many opportunities by their current employer to improve their digital skills outside their normal duties.

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 talent 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 the developing and least developed world and training their future tech leaders is an urgent need, and the way forward to building a healthier, more inclusive, and sustainable world.

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