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#TaiwanCanHelp… Bridge the Digital Divide

Author: Claire Tiunn 張詠涵

By providing developmental assistance aimed at bridging the digital divide, Taiwan can strengthen its reputation as a regional technology hub and a responsible global stakeholder. Yet, Taiwan’s role as a major player at the nexus of sustainable development and technological advancement has been delayed for far too long. Consequently, the time is ripe for a critical interrogation of technology’s role in Taiwan’s development assistance strategy.

Technology has become an integral part of our lives, our communities, and our countries. Taiwan’s digital population surpasses the global average of 59 per cent, with 93 per cent of Taiwan’s citizens on the internet (Central Intelligence Agency 2018; Hootsuite 2020). Though our lives and society are extremely digitized, 60 per cent of the world’s population still do not have access to technological development or infrastructure (Hootsuite 2020). This gap between individuals, societies, geographic locations, and other determinants with respect to their access and quality of information and communication technologies (ICT) and the Internet is known as the digital divide.

The digital divide has been exacerbated amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, as individuals realized the ever-increasing importance of the Internet as a tool of education, work, and other communication. This issue has been particularly pressing across the developing world. For instance, although Internet usage has increased by 70 per cent since the beginning of the pandemic, only three out of the eleven South East Asian countries have Internet penetration over 80 per cent (Jalli 2020; Ramos 2020).

Additionally, it is important to realize that the digital divide does not only rely on the number of devices in a country, but also a combination of infrastructure, human capacity, quality of hardware and software, and institutional capacity. It is a multifaceted issue that heavily affects the quality of life.

Despite the hot contestation of Taiwan’s inclusion in the United Nation, the country can still be an active and reliable stakeholder in the international community. As a matter of fact, the highly successful (and popular) #TaiwanCanHelp framework should be extended beyond mask diplomacy to other fields - including bridging the digital divide. As a matter of fact, development assistant efforts aimed at increasing access to technology can also contribute to the realization of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 9, or the “Building of resilient infrastructure, promoting sustainable industrialization, and fostering innovation.” Taiwan’s work towards this goal would constitute an important signal for the nation’s overseas partners about the robustness and benefits of its international cooperation and development framework.

As of now, Taiwan has no explicit policy in place to combat the digital divide beyond its national border. This constitutes a conspicuous void in the country’s foreign aid program. Given the complementarity of Tsai administration’s two flagship developmental initiatives, the 5+2 Innovative Industries Plan and the New Southbound Policy (NSP) could constitute the policy bedrock for bridging the digital divide across developing Asia.

The 5+2 Plan strives to move the focus of Taiwan’s economy from contract manufacturing—the industry that brought about the Taiwan Miracle—to high-value-added tech businesses, targeting domestic production chains. The NSP—inaugurated by the first Tsai Administration in 2016—aims to diversify Taiwan’s economic and foreign relations beyond Beijing and Washington to the 18 countries in Southeast Asia, South Asia, and Oceania in four areas: economic and trade collaboration, talent exchange, resource sharing, and regional connectivity. With the 5+2 Plan focusing on domestic developments and the NSP on expanding Taiwan’s international status, these two plans can, and indeed should, go hand in hand. These complementary policies show that expansion in the tech industry and diversification in foreign relations are on the forefront of Taiwan’s new consciousness, a country set to carve out their place in Asia and the world.

Critics may question the validity of encouraging NSP because it seems to only focus on overseas development. However, besides providing assistance to future partners, Taiwan can also propel its domestic economy through NSP and 5+2. It should also be noted that NSP targets an eclectic group of countries, so it should not be expected that technological development aid would resemble an one-size-fits-all policy. Rather than perceive those differences as a disadvantage, they should be viewed as an opportunity for Taiwan to utilize the two-track strategy as a starting point for multilateral cooperation.

The first track would be to assist countries with digital divide disparities, such as Indonesia and Thailand, due to social classes, income, and many other determining factors.

The second track would be for Taiwan to collaborate with high income economies, such as Australia, and focus on pre-existing digital divide initiatives. This two-track strategy would also be conducive to reaching targets of Sustainable Development Goal 9.

Firstly, closing the digital divide in low-income countries can be achieved through private-public partnerships. It is also noteworthy that Taiwan already has experience in this field.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and ASUS Cultural and Educational Foundation coming together to donate 140 computers to Jordan’s academic and public sectors is a perfect example of marrying the public and private sectors together for digital divide aid. As many notable Taiwanese hardware companies like ASUS, Acer, and HTC have established foundations for serving underprivileged populations in both Taiwan and abroad, the NSP should take advantage of these organizations to push for more collaboration and aid to NSP countries.

Similarly, through resource sharing, Taiwan would be able to capitalize on its technological assistance abroad to become a global stakeholder. The resources shared are not only limited to physical hardware like the Taiwan-Jordan example, but also human capital; with an abundance of educated Taiwanese engineers and educators, there are many opportunities for sharing human capital with the NSP countries. Combining public-private partnerships is a step in the right direction to strengthen Taiwan’s technological soft power in NSP countries. Taiwanese hardware should be used in emerging economies and to provide them with capacity to build up human capital for further development.

The second track builds on pre-existing digital divide initiatives from NSP countries by exploring opportunities for multilateral collaboration. As a key funder in Southeast Asian countries’ development aid, Australia can serve as an example of how a major player in Southeast Asia can use aid to empower and secure the wellbeing of vulnerable peoples. Australia’s Development for All is a great example of how a country can extend their arm to NSP countries and focuses on disability-inclusive development, which relies heavily on assistive technology for communication and assistance. Taiwan can capitalize on multilateral collaboration and involve itself in Development for All, working towards regional recognition with countries of the similar caliber. As mentioned previously, NSP draws an eclectic group of countries that lack many common similarities. Taiwan should take this to their advantage and diversify beyond bilateral relationships in favor of multilateral cooperation. Instead of waiting for its entry into international organizations, Taiwan can fully capitalize on the potential of NSP and create its own space for multilateral growth through digital assistance.

The strength of Taiwan’s technology sector is reflected in the highly successful COVID response of our archipelago-democracy. Taiwan is one of the only COVID success stories. Not only has Taiwan withstood the pandemic with little local transmission, but also the Taiwanese economy has managed to sustain an average growth rate of 2.98 per cent for 2020 (DGBAS 2021). Compared to its Asian counterparts, Taiwan has done exceptionally well— South Korea’s economic growth was -1.88 per cent and Japan by -4.8 per cent (BBC 2021, IMF 2021). This can be attributed to many reasons: social cohesion, affordable healthcare, experiences with SARS—but the effective and sustainable use of technology through digital contact tracing, entry restrictions, and mask map is the prevailing reason for Taiwan’s successes (Chiu et al. 2020). Taiwan should harness the potential of its technology-focused COVID response and scale it up.

The #TaiwanCanHelp model for medical diplomacy has been a terrific tool of soft power projection for the archipelago nation. At the same time, it remains important to devise ways for sustaining it beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. An effective way to achieve this would be to extend the model of “choosing solidarity in times of isolation” to other areas, such as equitable access to technology. The Taiwan Model can, and indeed should, go beyond mask diplomacy - it can be used to marry the 5+2 Innovative Industries Plan and the New Southbound Policy, and also help Taiwan actively contribute to the implementation of Sustainable Development Goals.

Claire Tiunn (張詠涵) is a research intern at Taiwan NextGen Foundation, where she assists with projects related to Taiwan’s soft power, with a particular focus on soft power of development. She is also a co-founder of Taiwan Mixed, a Taiwan-focused English-language news aggregator. Claire is currently pursuing studies in Economics and Russian & Eastern European Studies at Pomona College (United States) and was a visiting student at the National National Yang Ming Chiao Tung University (Hsinchui, Taiwan).

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