Digital Inequalities and the Sustainable Development Goals


When the United Nations launched the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015, they presented a roadmap to guide development work until 2030 – a roadmap towards the Future we Want. These goals provide guidance for not only the United Nations, development organizations and NGOs, but also for governments and institutions, companies and businesses. One of the key novelties of the SDGs is their global nature. While we used to associate development with so-called developing countries, the SDGs outline global challenges. Seeing the wide scope of goals, we want to achieve in the coming years, even a country like Belgium can be called a developing country, as it still has some way to go towards reaching many of the SDGs’ objectives. In fact, no country in the world has yet achieved all the 17 goals, which makes them a truly global agenda, relevant for countries all around the globe. 

One of these global challenges lies in the SDGs’ underlying value of leaving no-one behind. This mantra can not only be found within SDG 10 (Reduced Inequalities) but represents a guiding principle for all of the SDGs’ social objectives. That is because inequalities are complex and different forms of deprivation tend to reproduce and reinforce one another: It is, for example, hard to find a job without a place to live, but hard to find a place to live without a job. It can be difficult to receive quality education when you live in financial poverty, and difficult to escape poverty without good education. If you are facing deprivations in one area, you are likely to be left behind in others as well, and the more inequalities you are subject to, the more likely you are to be excluded from opportunities.  

The chicken-and-egg nature of inequalities is the reason why the SDGs call for leaving no-one behind, trying to ensure that progress towards the different goals reaches everybody and not only those who are better off to begin with. This challenge becomes particularly evident in the context of the increasing digitalization of society. More and more aspects of life are moving online – a trend that has been rapidly accelerated in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic – and digital connectivity is becoming increasingly crucial. Whether for work or education, for shopping or mobility, for banking or public services – being able to do things online is becoming a precondition. This digitalization, while simplifying life for many, brings about new forms of inequalities and manifests existing ones.  

Being able to benefit from digital technologies requires a large variety of resources: having the financial means to afford devices and connectivity, having the skills and competencies to use digital technology to your advantage, living in an area that is properly connected, having the necessary social support, being able to read and write, to see and type. The list goes on. The more of these resources you possess, the more likely you are to thrive in a digital society and to increase them further, by finding a better job, getting a better education, or having better access to basic services – all of which represent objectives of the SDGs. If, however, you are already lacking the necessary resources, you are likely to be left even further behind. As everyday life moves increasingly online, the gaps are likely to widen. 

If we want to truly leave no-one behind as we move towards the Future We Want, we must therefore ask how digitalization affects those who are digitally excluded: Who is likely to lack the access, the financial means, the skills and competencies or the physical requirements to benefit from digital services? Who, in turn, is likely to be left behind when getting a good education, finding work, or managing your savings makes digital connection a prerequisite? And how can we make sure we continue to reach those groups in a digital context? Only if we minimize the barriers that digitalization creates for marginalized groups can we achieve the SDGs’ aspiration of improving the lives of all people.