“Digital Divides” and Service Dispersal: Towards a Broader Understanding

“Digital divides” have been a key part of advancing development in the 21st century. With the great utility of computers and cell phones for business, banking, education, and political participation, bridging these “divides” to ensure access to various digital technologies. Bridging these divides is good for development, but the issues which limit access to electronic technologies around the world affect the distribution of other essential parts of modern life as well. By understanding the key contributors to digital divides, I believe those working on many aspects of the Sustainable Development Goals can understand hurdles which may face development in other fields.

In particular, thinking of the issues with rural accessibility to telecommunications services and similar issues within sanitation campaigns in rural areas run into the same sorts of barriers. The low population distribution, compared to rural areas, means that investments in infrastructure for telecommunications and sanitation are both cost-intensive and lack the quick ability to access a large number of people in urban areas. This means that political willpower is key in development for projects where the payoff may not be as immediate.

Grand Challenges and Why They Matter

Progress can only be defined by the way that major obstacles are overcome. Without hardship, there cannot be progress. Since history itself, humanity has faced many grand challenges that have shaped the world into what it is today, and the grand challenges that we currently face will determine what the future looks like. But what are grand challenges and why are they so important? To start, grand challenges are issues that directly affect humanity as a whole and require multi-stakeholder partnerships and cross disciplinary work to achieve results and find a solution within a given time frame. This term was first coined during the cold war, when the Kennedy administration ambitiously set out to land man on the moon for the first time. In 1961, Kennedy announced to the country: “before this decade is out, [we will be] landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” At this point in history, this was a grand challenge because no one thought it could be done and that it was out of the realm of what humanity was capable of. Yet it was achieved in 1969 with international help and with scientists from many disciplines, and the belief that it could be done.

If we look at some of the main issues of today, it seems impossible that we will ever end poverty, or ever become more sustainable, or be able to eliminate inequality. When the UN OWG met in Rio of 2012, 30 state members gathered together to address these grand challenges and frame them into the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Not only did they gather to identify the problems, but they gathered to set a critical deadline for when these goals should be achieved by 2030. Since the sustainable development goals were implemented, significant progress has been made. Between 1999 and 2013, poverty has been reduced from 1.7 billion to 767 million, which is very significant. Progress has also been made in hunger with the amount of undernourished people going from about 930 million in the early 2000’s to 793 million in 2014. In the field of medicine, “The risk of dying between the ages of 30 and 70 from one of four main non‑communicable diseases (NCDs)—cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes or chronic respiratory disease—fell from 23 per cent to 19 per cent between 2000 and 2015” (UN, Sustainable Development Goals Report 2017). However, with the deadline of 2030, the progress is not happening fast enough to achieve everything that the UN set out to do.

Although it may seem impossible to meet all of the goals set out by the SDGs before the year 2030, by setting an agenda and a deadline, it pushed countries around the world to take initiative and move in the right direction. Regardless of whether the goals are actually met by the given year, there will be significant progress made in making the world a better place for all.

The Linear Fallacy: Towards a Just Development Theory

Although much has changed since Rostow penned his linear development theory which has so marked modern theory of development, it is still seen as an intensely linear process; a transit from an undeveloped point A to a developed point B. This aggressive linearity does draw from history, but ignores the other half of the history such models describe: the colonies, slaves, and workers from which the supposedly inevitable course of development was built.

This matters for conceptions of development today, because in many ways that same linear conception of development can be seen in modern development efforts today. The assumption that there is a linear path to development ignores the hierarchies that still exist between the “developed” and “developing” world, where the developing countries provide raw materials, labor, and consumer markets to the developed states. No matter the ways in which the standard of living might be improved, without resolving the inequalities of the global economy, development will be a process without success, and states that are lower in the global economic hierarchy will not be able to meet the goals of development initiatives such as the SDGs.

Using Sen’s Capabilities Approach to Tackle Disability Discrimination

Despite agreeing that for some reason, certain countries struggle to “catch up” to a Western standard of development, the word development itself means something different to all who hear it. There are competing theories of development ranging from Utilitarianism, Libertarianism, to the Rawlsian Theory of Justice and how to approach it like the direct approach, supplementary approach, and indirect approach.

To some, development is about economic growth. To others like Amartya Sen, development is defined more as consisting “of the removal of various types of unfreedoms that leave people with little choice and little opportunity of exercising their reasoned agency” or “the process of expanding the real freedoms that people enjoy” (Development as Freedom). This is the capabilities approach, meaning that instead of focusing on individual income as the goal, development work must expand to include social and economic arrangements (ie the facilities for education and healthcare) and political and civil rights (ie the liberty to participate in public discussion and scrutiny). This follows the Rawlsian Theory of Justice model where John Rawls argues that justice and freedom are not mutually exclusive, instead of building institutions based on the idea of the social contract instead of the Utilitarian approach of the greatest good for the greatest number, excluding the rest. He expands freedoms to include 1) political 2) economic and 3) social opportunities as well as 4) transparency and 5) protective security, which all work together to develop and support the plurality of institutions.

Similarly to Sen, Sumner and Tribe, in International Development Studies, view development as three, inter-related views on development. These are 1) Long-term process of structural change in the international system, 2) Short to medium-term poverty reduction and MDGs , and 3) Development as discourse (a set of ideas; that shapes/frame reality).

Because the state must be in a supporting role to give people the agency to build these institutions, it is interesting to look at Sen’s approach in regards to inclusive development for persons with disabilities. Persons with disabilities often do not have these freedoms and do not have the ability to achieve the lives they have reason to value under the capabilities approach. By using Sen’s and Sumner and Tribe’s views on development, disability rights activists have a guiding framework with which to engage in conversation on a higher level.


Intersectionality, a term that refers to the systems of oppression that are compounded under identities such as race, gender, class, and ability, is pertinent for inclusive sustainable development as it is the crux of inclusivity. The concept is visible in all aspects of life, especially within development theory. It is based in social identities and can be applied to almost every aspect of development, from gender inclusivity to social status. For example, a single mother that struggles with the trials and tribulations of sexism in a westernized society is facing a very different obstacle than somebody that is deaf in a developing community. These differences in overall struggle must be noted when discussing development because otherwise the problems of entire populations will be ignored in the grand scheme of things. Without committing to this concept of intersectionality, there is no chance for full advocacy on a global scale, and therefore no chance for global development.

The United Nations created 9 Major Groups Frameworks in an attempt to have greater inclusion within the processes of policy-making. The groups are the following:

  • Women
  • Children and youth
  • Farmers
  • Indigenous peoples
  • NGOs
  • Trade Unions
  • Local Authorities
  • Science and Technology
  • Business and Industry

Because these groups have been established, more emphasis is put on their individual struggles and therefore the problems that they face have a higher chance of receiving aid. Representatives of each group are given access to conferences, meetings, and an opportunity to make recommendations within the global sphere, but what about the groups that are not included in these 9 frameworks? Herein lies the problem; although the United Nations is making a genuine effort to include specific communities in their efforts towards global inclusive sustainable development, large portions of the population are still left out entirely. For example, person with disabilities are not one of the 9 groups even though they make up approximately 15% of the entire earth’s population, something that acts as an extreme hindrance on their ability to be heard within the global forum.

When considering global development, these groups must be taken into consideration in addition to those who are not mentioned. In a sense, the creation of these 9 groups holds the ability to overshadow other marginalized groups such as disabled persons. Because these 9 groups have been formally established, most of the emphasis within the field of development have been placed on them, leaving other populations to receive less aid. It’s by this logic that multi-stakeholder frameworks that include all marginalized populations should be of the utmost importance. This, of course, is much easier said than done. If all marginalized groups of the population were included in this framework, there would be little done for each group as the force for development can only do so much for each group. Unintended consequences are always apparent when striving for global development, something that has caused things such as the SDGs great stress when setting objectives and targets. However, the concept of intersectionality continues to grow as a larger amount of inclusion becomes both necessary and normal.

Inclusive Education

Sustainable Development Goal #4, “Quality Education” and, more specifically, CRPD article #24, “Inclusive Education”, are both in collaboration towards the ultimate goal of creating an inclusive global education framework that is open to all. SDG 4 defines its goal as the following “to ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning”. Although this goal is very broad, this framework acts as a guide for many parties, both State and non-state. This concept of inclusive education is intensely important within this class and especially within the concept of inclusive sustainable development. According to the United Nations Education Scientific and Cultural Organization, the term “inclusive education” is defined as “the process of strengthening the capacity of the education system to reach out to all learners.” This definition advocates for wholly inclusive environments within the educational system, meaning full integration of those who are part of marginalized communities that have, traditionally, been unable to receive equal education benefits. A large population of this group includes disabled persons that normally struggle to achieve full access to traditional education systems. Even growing up, it was obvious that the other children in my class that were autistic or struggled with a mental disability did not receive the same quality of education as I did because they were often placed in a separate room, a separate class, to keep them isolated from those who were considered to be “normal”. Growing up in the United States, it was difficult to see friends and other students that struggled with these disabilities received lesser education, but it is important to note that there are placed within this earth where those with disabilities sometimes don’t even receive education due to their disabled status. This isolation from the education system coupled with their overall isolation from society leads to the intensified vulnerability and lack of opportunity for these persons living with disabilities, something that is not conducive to the overall inclusive sustainable development of our world. It is for this very reason that inclusive education is at the top of the list of priorities within the SDGs.

Education plays a gargantuan role in the overall social and economic development of our society. With education comes transparency and inclusivity on the global issues that we face as a human race, and without that inclusive aspect of life there is no opportunity for involvement of these voices that are the most important when searching for solutions. There is a plethora of countries that are currently attempting to implement inclusive education policies in accordance with SDG 4. For example, the 2003 UNESCO report titled “Inclusive Education Initiatives for Children with Disabilities: Lessons from the East Asia and Pacific Region” discusses the overall concept of inclusive educational policies. This report is an extensive look into the lives of children growing up with disabilities in their current education systems, noting both the challenges they face as well as the successes. By making this category of information public, the rest of the world is able to see why such a large population is struggling to receive a proper education and why it is necessary to implement change into the varying systems that affect the children of today.

ICTs are one of the most important contributors to achieving this concept of inclusive education due to the fact that it acts as a resource for those living with a disability to receive the education they would not have otherwise been able to obtain. For example, as mentioned in an earlier blog post, within the United States it is very common for universities to have an online option where people are able to receive their degree online. This is important because many persons living with a disability don’t have the resources or the ability to physically attend school. In other countries, access to the internet is also an incredible asset towards inclusive education because it allows for those marginalized communities to participate in global discussions and learning that they would not have had access to otherwise.

As more governments implement these inclusive education policies within their countries, more and more people are obtaining the ability to receive a quality education, which inherently reduces the global inequalities that the SDGs are implemented to eradicate. Additionally, the goals that have been established by the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities are a great foundation for states to properly induct these inclusive education policies. Global education is crucial towards achieving not only the SDGs, but also in moving towards the ultimate goal of complete inclusive sustainable development.

Opportunities and Limitations in Global Strategic Frameworks

The Millennium Development Goals, although replaced with the refined Sustainable Development Goals, withheld successes that set a foundation for future development initiatives. Adopted in 2000, the MDGs set their goals to reached by 2015, a goal that ultimately was not achieved. Because the MDGs were so ambitious in their goals, it’s not completely surprising that their outcome was less than expected. Amongst some of the goals included in the MDGs were the eradication of poverty and hunger, universal primary education, and gender equality. Although these goals were not achieved in their entirety, they act as an important global framework for how certain actors approach things such as poverty reduction and global education. The unifying framework that was laid out by these goals set the foundation for the Sustainable Development Goals and allowed for the exchange of dialogue and practical approaches towards overall solutions to the problems at hand.

Although this framework was created by the MDGs, one major limitation that continues to exist is overall access to outlets of influence. This is addressed more deeply within the SDGs, but is still a major problem everywhere.In modern society, the only people that are able to access policy-making opportunities are those who withhold access to Prep Coms and the resources to do so, such as ICTs and financial ability. Due to the fact that over 80% of the world lives in poverty and 15% of the world’s population lives with a disability that hinders their ability to access these kinds of opportunities, there is a huge disparity between those who are allowed a voice in decision-making processes. One of the main reasons why the MDGs are seen as a failure by some is that persons with disabilities were completely left out of their framework, leading to policies that made little to no mention of them, a problem that is intensely problematic given the amount of people on this earth that live with a disability. It has been claimed by countless scholars, including people like Kett and Lang, that would be impossible to achieve the goals of the MDGs. Not only did the MDGs struggle with inclusion, but they also struggled with implementation due to the fact that the goals are not legally binding, providing no real motivation for states to implement their policies. This coupled with the fact that the wording and content of these goals were both vague and general sets a foundation of rhetorical commitments that holds no valor in the global sphere. This is highlighted by Deepak Nayyar when he notes the difficulty in contextualizing the MDGs in different setting, both locally and statewide.

On the whole, the MDGs withheld positive and negative aspects. Although they failed in their implementation and overall sphere of influence, they did in fact set a trail for the SDGs through allowing the global community to grow and strategize off of what failed and what succeeded. For instance, when looking at the disparities between the MDGs and the SDGs, the SDGs withhold 11 mentions of persons with disabilities, a number that emerged out of the need for the MDGs to include this large population of people. As we progress as a society, hopefully we are able to continue to grow and learn from the failure of our attempts towards inclusive sustainable development.