INTERVIEW: Christine Zhenwei Qiang (pictured), director of digital development at World Bank, warned of a widening divide with 2.6 billion people unconnected, arguing targeted investments in lower income markets and the removal of policy barriers could help to address the issue. 

Speaking to Mobile World Live at MWC Barcelona 2024, Qiang explained recent research by World Bank found that the digital gap between developed and developing countries is “multi-dimensional” and continues to widen.

She highlighted the fact that 850 million people do not have “any kind of digital ID” and women are still less likely to have access to handsets and online services today. 

This has led to what she described as “the spill-over effect”, with IT services in the industrial sector doubling over the last decade in higher income countries, deepening the divide. 

Part of the problem is, according to Qiang, the lack of access to pocket-friendly handsets, which also factors into the gender gap as mobile phones are traditionally more likely to be owned by the head of the household. 

“Although some of the [devices] prices are already as low as $20 to $30 dollars per month, in low-income countries that is actually a big percentage of their household income”, she explained, adding data costs also increases the burden. 

World Bank is partnering with MNOs and financial institutions to provide initiatives including loans and subsidies for mobile plans.  

Qiang explained actors in the private sector are “willing to do more to improve the whole digital ecosystem”, but added policymakers also need to eliminate existing barriers to cut handset costs. 

To watch the full interview, click here.