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Are we sure everybody is sitting in Ghana’s digital train?

BY: Ajoa Yeboah-Afari
Nobody should be left behind in this digital
Nobody should be left behind in this digital

‘Computer literacy’; ‘smartphone’; ‘internet’; ‘email’ ‘digital divide’ and ‘cashless economy’.

These are some of the signposts of the present, fast-moving era; the speeding digital train.

But is everybody able to jump aboard the train?

A couple of days ago, I was somewhat bemused when someone asked me for my Mobile Money (MoMo) account in order to make a payment to me.

My surprise was that the question was not ‘do you have a MoMo account?’, but rather, “what is your MoMo number?”

Apparently, the enquirer expected me to have such an account.

But why, I wondered. Why that assumption?

But perhaps it’s not surprising.

It’s a similar attitude that also seems to have taken root in Ghana’s recruitment processes and other employment opportunities.

The impression is that many institutions and agencies expect everybody who needs their service to be computer literate; and to have access to the internet.

In recent times, it appears that every advertisement for recruitment or schooling requires applicants to have access to the internet because they are to respond by email.

Some also ask applicants to that organization’s website for further details.

But how practical, or fair, is this?

Does everybody in Ghana, notably young persons looking for employment, have access to the internet, or to electricity, or even sustained electricity?

Even if they have a smartphone and internet access, would that give them equal opportunity?

If job openings and opportunities are being made available only through online application, what happens to those who through no fault of theirs have little or no internet knowledge or access?

Why should the already underprivileged be penalized again because they are on the wrong side of the ‘digital divide”?

It is no exaggeration to state that the vast majority of schools in rural or even peri-urban Ghana, lack the expertise or the tools to teach ‘digital literacy’.

Digital literacy is defined as “having the skills you need to live, learn, and work in a society where communication and access to information is increasingly through digital technologies like internet platforms, social media, and mobile devices.”

As I wrote in this space in 2015, “the assumption, especially by our politicians and political appointees, that everybody in Ghana is ‘internet-savvy’, or has access to the internet is perplexing. In the Ghanaian situation – lack of access, limited computer literacy, not to mention power problems – is it realistic?”

Can’t applicants have the option to apply either by email or by hard copy?

Why can’t both be allowed until it is certain that most would-be aspirants are on board the digital train?

Admittedly, it makes things easier for the recruiting institution if applicants are internet or computer savvy, but surely lack of that skill should not be a barrier to an otherwise excellent candidate.

Evidently once employed, it would take only a few days for the employee to learn the computer basics.

Interestingly, yet another source noted sometime ago, that “less than 5% of rural inhabitants in (Ghana) are users of the Internet” I doubt that there have been substantial advances since then.

Those on the wrong side of the digital divide, the older ones, jokingly describe themselves as the ‘B-B-C’, (‘born-before-computer’) generation.

However, the ‘B-B-C’ situation seems to be more than lack of computer know-how.

Another digital divide relates to banking and payments, especially as service providers are increasingly introducing cashless transactions, apparently moving into a ‘cashless economy’, avoiding the use of ‘physical cash’.

Conceivably, it’s a worldwide phenomenon which is stressing out those without digital skills, as illustrated by a recent publication I came across.

In its issue of February 6, 2021, The Week magazine of the UK, under the headline, ‘Left behind in a cash-free world’, reprinted the following poignant opinion piece from a Chinese media outlet:
“Chinese people now pay for almost everything with their smartphones, say Guo Yingzhe and Hu Yue – and that’s a serious problem for elderly people who aren’t tech-savvy. Financial apps and digital services have grown fast in China …. But the disappearance of banknotes carries a price.

“In a recent viral video, an elderly woman was shown trying to pay for her health insurance in person using cash. The impatient clerk snaps, “No cash is accepted here: either tell your relatives or pay on your mobile phone”.

It caused an instant backlash, and the following month the People’s Bank of China issued a diktat requiring public institutions, financial firms and small businesses to accept cash ….

“It has so far penalized 15 companies and one public body who refused to take cash, with fines from $77 to $77,000. The broader strategy is to help older people master new technology and bridge a growing divide between generations.

“And rightly so. As technological advances continue apace, we must not leave the elderly behind.” (CaixinGlobal.com, Beijing)

I empathize fully with that Chinese woman.

For example, I have little or no idea what most of the applications on my smartphone are for.

In fact, it was only three days ago that I discovered, by chance, that there is a timer on the phone.

Yet, I have been using all sorts of strategies, in trying to follow the COVID-19 safety protocol of washing one’s hands “for at least 20 seconds”.

Estimating the 20 seconds was the problem!

It simply never occurred to me to see if my phone could help.

Yet, a smartphone is a mini computer!

On the other hand, why didn’t the World Health Organization think it helpful to add to the instruction something like ‘if there is a timer on your phone, use it to get the 20 seconds right’?

WHO, why assume that everybody can calculate 20 seconds?

Generally, I think that the ‘Left behind’ story has a lesson for us, too.

Indeed, in the Ghanaian situation, it’s not only the elderly who are of concern.

As far as possible, nobody should be left behind.

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