The arrival of AI-powered chatbots has made many people think once again about the skills needed for the "digital future of work". Any efforts to improve digital skills are addressing a moving target, which implies that teaching the appropriate skills is not a trivial matter. What is certain, though, is that there is a very considerable digital skills gap between richer and poorer countries.
The demand for digital skills is very heterogeneous, ranging from basic digital literacy that enables individuals to effectively use simple digital tools to the advanced digital skills necessary to participate in the “global division of digital labour”. Empirical studies on the demand for digital skills show this heterogeneity across sectors and countries. A study on several African countries1 suggests that 70 per cent of digital skills demand in these countries will be for foundational skills, and 23 per cent of the demand will be for non-digital intermediate skills. Another study2 on selected Asian countries finds that individuals with intermediate and advanced skills are in high demand. Both studies indicate a growing demand for digital skills, and also conclude that this demand is not being met.
The digital gap
The limited data available suggests that levels of digital literacy are relatively low in countries of the Global South. Low-income countries exhibit extremely low levels of digital literacy, while the gaps between middle-income and high-income countries are also very considerable. This is the challenge targeted by SDG 4.4 – increasing the number of youth and adults who have relevant skills, including technical and vocational skills, for employment, decent jobs and entrepreneurship. But the scale of the challenge is formidable. For example, there are very few low-income countries reporting any data on the proportion of youth and adults with information and communications technology (ICT) skills (SDG indicator 4.4.1). What data there is points to huge discrepancies in digital skills across countries (see figure above and below). In Chad and the Central African Republic, for example, only a very small fraction of adults (1.6% and 2.4%, respectively) have copied or moved a folder; few countries manage to surpass 40 per cent (see figure above).
The share of people who have used basic arithmetic formulas in a spreadsheet is also very low for most low- and middle-income countries. In poor African countries, including Chad, the Central African Republic, Niger and Togo, fewer than 1.5 per cent of individuals are equipped with these skills. The majority of poor countries do not even reach 25 per cent (see figure below) – compared with approximately 50 per cent in highly skilled Korea. Even Germany has a poor showing at 35 per cent.
Evidence on the use of digital technologies in schools, furthermore, suggests that most middle-income countries lag far behind high-income countries, particularly in schools with students with low socioeconomic status. This may cause digital skills gaps to persist or even grow. For example, data from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) in 2018, which mostly represents OECD countries, show that 88 per cent of students had an Internet connection at home and a computer they could access for schoolwork – an increase of 28 percentage points compared to PISA 20033 (see last figure).
In low- and middle-income countries, this share was substantially lower. In countries such as the Dominican Republic, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mexico, Morocco, Peru, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam –the more advanced economies of the Global South – only half or less of the students had access to the Internet and a computer at home. Further, as illustrated in the next figure, there are huge inequalities in these access rates between children in "advantaged" schools (top 25 per cent according to PISA average score) and "disadvantaged" schools (bottom 25 per cent). In Peru, the country where this discrepancy is largest, almost 90 per cent of students in advantaged schools have access to the Internet and a computer at home, in contrast to less than 10 per cent in disadvantaged schools.
Overcoming national inequalities and international gaps will require huge effort, and it will be difficult to achieve by relying on later training efforts. These are clearly needed, though, and digital skills training programmes are proliferating. Worldwide, millions of adults have participated, or are participating, in such programmes. For example, Microsoft's Global Skills Initiative, which provides free access to training on LinkedIn Learning, Microsoft Learn and GitHub Learning, was taken up by 30.7 million people in 249 countries within eight months of launching (during the COVID-19 pandemic). "Big tech" plays a key role in organizing and implementing these training offers, many of which are delivered free of charge, but there are also many smaller-scale programmes.
The public sector, including national governments, international organizations and development cooperation efforts, supports some of these private-sector programmes4 but also engages in its own initiatives. However, despite their spread and reach, digital training has not yet proven its effectiveness in terms of enhancing digital skills. The few rigorous studies available indicate that improving employee–employer matching (through job referrals or teaching effective use of online professional platforms) may be more important than training (alone) for obtaining employment. Further, they often remain out of reach for those without a computer and internet access.
In sum, our assessment of digital skills in the Global South calls for policy action to address the yawning digital skills gap between high-income countries and low- and middle-income countries. This is a precondition for equitably harnessing the potential gains of digitalization. Successful policies will depend on a considerably expanded knowledge base regarding digital skills, how to acquire them and their labour-market relevance.
This article is based on a piece published on GIGA Focus Global.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the authors based on their experience and on prior research and do not necessarily reflect the views of UNIDO (read more).
- World Bank, and IFC (2021), Demand for Digital Skills in Sub-Saharan Africa, Washington, DC: International Finance Corporation, accessed 27 May 2023.
- Asian Development Bank, and LinkedIn (2022), Digital Jobs and Digital Skills: A Shifting Landscape in Asia and the Pacific, Manila, Philippines: Asian Development Bank.
- OECD (2021), 21st-Century Readers: Developing Literacy Skills in a Digital World, PISA, OECD.
- ILO (2021), World Employment and Social Outlook 2021: The Role of Digital Labour Platforms in Transforming the World of Work, S.l.: International Labour Office.