Social services around the world are rapidly being digitised. It is cheaper and more efficient, and it can improve the experience of service users. But benefits of digitisation are highly unequal. Digital exclusion is persistent. And the push towards replacing face-to-face interactions with digital tools, especially in low- and middle-income countries, occurs with the full force of powerful actors on an uneven playing field that holds little space for critical voices.
This episode delves into the issue of digital exclusion, what causes it, and how to address it. We are joined by Christiaan van Veen, Director of the Digital Welfare State and Human Rights Project at the New York University School of Law and by my colleague Becky Faith, Research Fellow and Leader of the Digital and Technology cluster at the Institute of Development Studies. Both have a wealth of experience in policy-focused research on the impact of digital technology on marginalised communities across the world.
We talk about the persistence of digital exclusion in high-income countries such as the UK. Digital inclusion requires more than supplying laptops or providing internet connectivity. The whole process of digitisation is about systems change, and reconfigures the relationship between state and citizen. One of the worrying aspects is that it allows governments to get away with underserving or excluding segments of their population as the additional layer of technology introduces lack of transparency. There is need for more critical interrogation of the process of digitisation and to challenge the false narrative – particularly in expanding social protection in low- and middle-income countries – that ‘digital’ is more modern and always better.
You will hear both Christiaan and Becky refer to ‘Universal Credit’ in the UK context. This refers to the new system of social assistance (or welfare) in the UK that has replaced a range of different benefits. It has also come up in our previous episodes on food banks and relative poverty in the UK.
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