Hanif Lalani on the Role of Corporate Social Responsibility in Reducing the Digital Divide
The digital divide is a pervasive global issue that continues to limit access to essential resources and opportunities for billions of people. In an era where digital technology plays a crucial role in education, employment, healthcare, and social participation, addressing this divide has become imperative.
While government initiatives and nonprofit organizations play a significant role, tech companies and corporations also have a vital part to play in reducing the digital divide through corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts.
Hanif Lalani concurs that no single stakeholder holds the power or responsibility to close the digital divide on its own.
He says: “Each entity plays an essential role in addressing the digital divide and ensuring digital equity for all. Collectively, these stakeholders work together to address the multifaceted challenges of the digital divide, ensuring that individuals and communities have equal access to digital technology and the opportunities it offers.”
A former telecommunications executive who spent a tenure of over three decades leading a large multinational company, in recent years Lalani has shifted his focus to roles dedicated to creating positive social change. He has contributed to a number of high-speed internet initiatives in the Middle East, and East Africa, and is currently concentrating on the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) region.
Lalani’s tenure as a corporate executive in the telecommunications industry, coupled with his involvement in high-speed internet initiatives in underserved areas, uniquely positions him to possess a comprehensive understanding of both facets of the equation. Below, we explore further with him the evolution of corporate social responsibility, the intricacies of the digital divide, and the interplay between these two vital aspects.
What is corporate social responsibility?
Corporate social responsibility (sometimes abbreviated to CSR) is a concept that refers to a company’s voluntary commitment to act ethically and responsibly in ways that benefit society beyond its core business activities and profit generation. In practice, it can encompass a broad spectrum of actions and initiatives, with the ultimate aim being to have a positive impact on employees, customers, communities, the environment, and society at large. Going beyond merely adhering to legal and regulatory requirements, corporate social responsibility emphasizes the moral and ethical obligations of businesses to contribute to the greater good.
Hanif Lalani says that the evolution of corporate social responsibility can be delineated through various phases and influences.
He comments: “When I was in the beginning of my executive career at the tail end of the 1990s, the concept of companies considering stakeholders rather than just shareholders was only just beginning to gain traction in the corporate world.
“Over the next decade, there was a growing recognition of the significance of engaging with employees, customers, suppliers, and local communities.” Companies began considering the broader societal impacts of their operations, acknowledging that business success was interconnected with the well-being of their respective stakeholders.
“Today, corporate social responsibility is a fundamental component of the business strategies of many companies. Leaders are increasingly seeing opportunities to address social and environmental challenges as sources of innovation and competitive advantage. Beyond that, it has the ability to enhance a company’s reputation and attract socially conscious consumers.”
What is the digital divide?
“At its core, the digital divide is a representation of disparities in opportunities and access to the advantages of the digital revolution,” said Lalani. On one side of the divide are those who have easy access to high-speed internet, modern computing devices, and the skills necessary to navigate and utilize digital tools proficiently. This group can fully engage in online education, telecommuting, e-commerce, and a number of other digital services that enhance their quality of life.
On the opposite side of the divide are individuals and communities who lack reliable internet access, have limited or no access to digital devices, and may not possess the digital skills needed to thrive in an increasingly digital world. These groups confront substantial challenges in accessing educational resources, employment opportunities, healthcare services, and even fundamental government services.
The digital divide manifests through various dimensions. There is a geographic divide, with urban areas generally having better internet infrastructure than rural or remote regions. An economic divide sees low-income individuals and families struggling to afford internet connectivity and digital devices.
Additionally, there is an educational divide, where limited access to digital tools and the internet can hinder students’ ability to access online educational resources. At a macro level there is a global divide, with disparities in digital access and infrastructure existing on a worldwide scale, often more pronounced in developing countries due to limited resources.
The crucial role of CSR in bridging the gap
Philanthropic initiatives are pivotal in addressing the digital divide by providing crucial support in various ways. Tech giants and organizations can donate digital devices and invest in essential infrastructure, such as broadband networks in rural areas, to expand digital access.
Lalani highlights that within the telecommunications sector, they can offer affordable or subsidized internet packages to low-income individuals and families, making connectivity more accessible. Additionally, philanthropic efforts can go toward funding digital literacy training programs, equipping individuals with the skills required to use digital technology effectively.
Community engagement is a critical component of efforts to bridge the digital divide, as it involves connecting with local communities and individuals to address their unique needs and challenges. This collaboration ensures that initiatives are tailored to the community’s requirements. Establishing tech hubs or community centres with free digital access creates physical spaces for learning and collaboration, particularly benefiting those without home internet access.
“Encouraging employees to volunteer as mentors can foster digital skill-building in underserved communities,” said Hanif Lalani. “They have the ability to provide personalized guidance, empowering community members to navigate the digital world effectively.
“Public-private partnerships—where tech companies collaborate with governments to design and implement digital inclusion policies, infrastructure projects, and innovative technology-driven solutions—are another potent strategy in addressing the digital divide. By working in tandem with governments at various levels, these partnerships align digital initiatives with broader public policy goals, facilitating coordinated efforts to expand broadband access, particularly in underserved areas.”
He continues: “Simultaneously, leveraging emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things (IoT) allows public-private partnerships to develop creative solutions that address specific digital divide challenges. AI can personalize digital literacy programs, while IoT can extend internet coverage to remote regions or establish smart community centres, showcasing the transformative potential of technology in bridging the digital divide and improving the quality of life for underserved communities.
“Finally, measurement and transparency are integral to effective corporate social responsibility efforts in addressing the digital divide. Tech companies can begin by setting clear, measurable CSR goals related to digital inclusion, such as expanding internet access or enhancing digital literacy.”
Regular reporting on progress toward these goals, shared with stakeholders, including customers and investors, underscores a commitment to transparency and accountability. In addition, tech companies have a pivotal role in sharing their successful strategies and initiatives with industry peers. “What gets measured, gets managed,” said Lalani. “The same holds true for corporate social responsibility.”
CSR offers tech companies and corporations an opportunity to make a significant impact in reducing the digital divide. By channelling resources, expertise, and innovation into philanthropic efforts and community engagement, these organizations can help bridge the gap in digital access and skills.
Collaborative approaches, public-private partnerships, and a commitment to transparency are essential components of these efforts. As tech companies recognize their responsibility in addressing this critical issue, we move closer to a world where digital equity is more than just a goal but a reality for all.