ABOUT THE EVENT: Our 10th OneSouthAsia Conversation explores how South Asian nations can leapfrog and transform into dynamic digital economies, societies, and governments, with concerted actions at national and regional levels. The event will coincide with the release of World Bank’s flagship report on South Asia’s Digital Opportunity: Accelerating Growth, Transforming Lives.
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: COVID-19 has highlighted the critical role of digital technologies for inclusive development, resilience, and protecting lives and livelihoods. The shocks brought by the pandemic have exposed the real cost of digital divides within and among countries, as well as the opportunities to build back better. People and businesses who lacked digital skills, connectivity, and devices faced challenges accessing online services and new opportunities created by the growing digital economy. Similarly, the countries that had strong digital stacks—interconnected platforms for digital identity, digital payments, and data sharing—and other digital capabilities were better equipped to mount an effective economic, social protection, and public health response, as well as maintain the continuity of government operations and commerce.
For the almost two billion people living in South Asia, digitalization can expand access to services and markets, promote economic diversification and job creation, reduce transaction, and trade costs, and stimulate innovation. There are many examples across the region of how governments, businesses, and people are harnessing this potential. For instance, India’s Aadhaar system revolutionized government-to-person (G2P) payments and spurred other platforms that have created a dynamic innovative ecosystem in the private sector; digital payments in Pakistan have increased fourfold since 2015; and the share of South Asia’s population, which was out of the reach of mobile network signals, fell from 30 percent in 2014 to 8 percent in 2021.
Yet challenges remain. Only a third of the region’s inhabitants subscribe to mobile internet services, women in the region are 36 percent less likely to use mobile internet than men, and very low levels of digital literacy limit the use of innovative services in rural areas or lower-income households. Early research suggests that such gaps and the resulting economic divides have widened during the COVID-19 pandemic.
South Asian countries can tap this immense digital potential with better infrastructure, improved digital skills, enhanced digital inclusion and protection. In addition, more can be done to promote regional cooperation and unlock opportunities by improving access to capacity and connecting currently disadvantaged landlocked countries; boosting cross-border trade and investments, digital payments, and partnerships in sectors like health, education, finance, and disaster risks; and enabling cross-border data flows based on common frameworks and standards.