UN priortises ICT skills for economic development

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• Decries dearth in developing countries

The United Nations (UN) has hinged economic developments on increased information and communications technology (ICT) skills, especially among developing countries. Speaking through its specialised agency for ICT, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the UN noted that skills are fundamental for participation in today’s information society, and correlate positively with social well-being and economic productivity.

The global body said there is an increased need for “soft” skills beyond technical and navigational skills. It disclosed that a breadth of skills – including technical operational, information management, social and content-creation skills – will be fundamental to achieving positive and avoiding negative outcomes.

It stressed that algorithms, the proliferation of bots, and a shift to the Internet of Things and Artificial Intelligence, augment the need for critical information and advanced content-creation skills. “With the increased complexity of ICT systems, and an exponential increase in the amount of data being collected, transferable digital skills and lifelong learning are indispensable.”

In the Measuring The Information Society Report 2018, made available to The Guardian, on Monday, ITU observed that there are considerable gaps across the board in the skills needed at all levels. It revealed in the 189 page report that a third of individuals lack basic digital skills, such as copying files or folders or using copy and paste tools, saying a mere 41 per cent have standard skills, such as installing or configuring software or using basic formulars on spreadsheets; and only four per cent are using specialist language to write computer programmes.

ITU said scarce data suggest developing countries are particularly disadvantaged when it comes to digital skills. It stressed that there is a lack of data collected on skills in developing regions, but the available data suggests that inequalities reflect other inequalities between the different regions of the world, particularly in relation to basic skills.

The UN body observed that within-country inequalities in basic and standard skills reflect historical patterns of inequality. On average, it said those in employments were 10 percentage points more likely to have a skill than the self-employed, who are in turn 10 percentage points more likely than the unemployed to have a skill. Those with tertiary education are around 1.5 to 2 times more likely to have a skill than those with upper secondary education, and 3.5 to 4 times as likely as those with only primary education. Individuals in rural areas are about 10 percentage points less likely than urban dwellers to have a skill.

According to it, there is a five percentage point difference between men and women in having a certain skill.ITU observed that there are skills inequalities among children as much as there are among adults. While little data are available on this outside of Europe, available data suggest that digital inequalities are not a generational thing and will persist into the future

The report noted that there is an urgent need for the development of measures across the range of operational, information management, social and content-creation skills. These items, according to it, should be device- and platform-independent, measure skills rather than activities, and limit social desirability bias in the design of their answer scales.

Furthermore – to understand the skills gap in relation to a potential future in which ICTs are embedded and invisible – the development of critical information, communication and data management, and production skills measures is desperately needed.

According to ITU, the utmost priority is to make digital skills policies in relation to gaps in the labour market and concerns about widening social inequalities more effective. To get this done, ITU suggested that there is need for the collection of higher-quality and more reliable data on the full range of digital skills in different sectors; targeting specific groups depending on need and outcomes to be achieved, rather than following a one-size-fits-all approach; and instead of establishing funding principles and incentives around success, where only best practices are shared, by stimulating multi-sectoral stakeholder partnerships with a continuous exchange of lessons learned and improvements made.

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