The CORE Report

CORE = COVID-19 Response for Equity

After Access: Digitalisation for just social compact – report cover

Global South lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic

Digitalisation for a just social compact. Insights from countries in Latin America, South Asia, and Africa. An IDRC COVID-19 Responses for Equity (CORE) project.

The pandemic marked a significant leap in digital technology use, ensuring continuity in education, health, and other services. Yet, the digital divide persists. Beyond connectivity, the conversation rarely addresses technology appropriation. Vulnerable groups, including the elderly, disabled, and rural communities, still require substantial support to effectively utilise these technologies.


Did digital technology help us during COVID? Yes, for some. But we saw systems of education, work, health and social protection were not ready to enable digital substitution for all, despite decades of investment.


The pandemic and the uneven responses to it by states, big corporations and the multinational private sector in developing countries has highlighted the centrality of foundational digital inclusion – not only for effective citizenship and democratic participation but for life opportunities in the increasingly globalised economy and polity – and indeed for survival under disaster conditions.




Globally, COVID-19 lockdowns saw a rapid increase in digitalisation as work, education, and leisure activities shifted online. Large swathes of people across the majority of the world were unable to digitally substitute to mitigate the health and economic risks associated with COVID-19 and the associated lockdowns. As a result, these individuals were often invisible to the state, limiting their representation in, and access to, public health measurements, social protection, and business relief measures afforded online.

The globally intensifying processes of digitalisation and datafication have begun to affect all areas of private and public life. Although these developments are highly uneven, particularly in developing country contexts, there is evidence that they can enable the increased visibility of firms and individuals transacting online to the state. In return digitalisation and datafication have the potential to address some of the major challenges facing post-colonial states, including increasing formality for economic development and state formation – particularly revenue generation and resource allocation.

In developing countries where the majority of people exist in the informal sector and under conditions of extreme inequality, capitalising on increased visibility can enable more effective collection of rational and legitimate taxes. This in turn can improve social protection and welfare investments – and in the context of the pandemic business and social relief – could enhance democratic state formation and provide a basis for a renewed social compact between states and citizens.

Scope and methodology

The COVID-19 Responses for Equity (CORE) project, funded by the Canadian International Development Research Centre (IDRC), was conducted between 2020 and 2023 by an international consortium with research covering countries in Latin America, South Asia and Africa to understand the strengths and weaknesses of COVID-19 digital response strategies in various areas.

The research was carried out by the three key project partners – IEP, LIRNEasia and RIA – and their respective regional partners. The research employed a mixed-methods approach, using both nationally representative surveys and qualitative data-gathering tools.

Research framework

As digitalisation and datafication impact all areas of public and private life, so too does policy around these need to be transversal. This conceptual framework formed the basis of the CORE research and is schematised below.

The research focuses on six key issue areas. Individual information and resources for each area are made available on this page:

  1. Intersectional inequality and digital substitution
  2. Informality and development
  3. Taxation
  4. Social protection
  5. Labour
  6. Education

Intersectional inequality and digital substitution

Issue area 1

Gaps in digital access and use persist, especially in the Global South. These digital inequalities reflect and amplify underlying structural exclusions, particularly those that exist within gender. Policy interventions require collaboration across multiple sectors, and must adopt an intersectional approach that draws on gender-differentiated data.

There is little accurate data on Internet access in most African and Asian countries. Global data, aggregated at regional or national levels masks the heterogeneity of access. The findings from CORE’s nationally representative demand-side surveys provide some of the only accurate data regarding the degree to which people were able to digitally substitute to sustain themselves, and sometimes survive, during the COVID-19 lockdowns.

Increasingly, data is being collected from digital activity to inform policy. But high levels of digital inequality mean that those without digital access end up being invisible to policymakers and private actors. As a result, policies and strategies are more likely to overlook the needs of the most vulnerable.

Informality and development

Issue area 2

The informal sector makes up over 70% of total global employment, with that figure even higher in the Global South. These survivalist economies were destroyed during the COVID-19 lockdowns, with many unable to access social safety nets and other digital resources.

The limited adoption of the Internet among informal enterprises, workers, and micro-enterprises means that often the most vulnerable are unable to leverage the digital resources provided by some governments beyond basic mobile phone communication.

There are critical regional differences in how people access the Internet. While fixed-line infrastructure is important in countries in the Global North, mobile internet access is the primary mechanism to get online in much of the Global South. Initiatives to support greater digital access should thus focus efforts on mobile network growth and the affordability of mobile phone devices.


Issue area 3

Resource mobilisation, in the form of taxation, plays a critical role in the state. Developing countries battle to collect tax because of their very large informal economic sectors. This work uncovers potential solutions to mitigate these challenges.

The digital economy provides a potential avenue for better resource mobilisation by the state. While the majority of Africa’s microenterprises are very small and fall under the taxation threshold, greater transparency in transactions will allow for the increased visibility of the financial flows of larger firms, guarding against tax evasion.

There is also the potential to tax large multinational companies, including big tech companies, operating within a country’s borders even when companies do not have a physical presence in that jurisdiction.

Social protection

Issue area 4

Digitalisation and datafication can play a role in bridging gaps in the delivery of social protection. A key challenge is that levels of Internet use remain lowest among the groups that are most in need of social protection (including older persons).

Evidence from Peru, Colombia, and India indicate that while governments used digitally enabled channels to disseminate information on emergency social protection programmes, traditional media channels such as television and radio were most effective.

Research findings note that digitalisation and social protection strategies for older adults need to be more carefully designed and targeted. There needs to be an evaluation of the public service supply versus the specific requirements of older adults.


Issue area 5

The COVID-19 pandemic provided a natural experiment to test the impact of digitalisation on the way we work. The ability to switch to remote work was severely limited in the Global South, with wide variation according to industries and socio-economic conditions.

While digital access enabled remote work for some, it was not universally necessary. In India, only 30% needed internet access for work, emphasising the diversity of work requirements. Platform work, in which supply and demand for a specific service are matched through an algorithm, grew across many countries in the Global South.

The value of enabling remote work became apparent during the pandemic as an entry point for those outside the labour force and a way to make workplaces more resilient to shocks. But it is important to also protect vulnerable workers, such as platform workers, working outside the jurisdiction in which their employer is headquartered. Labour laws need to be developed with these workers in mind.


Issue area 6

Lockdowns in response to COVID-19 meant schools across the globe closed down to in-person learning. The negative impacts of this for students included losses in critical skills, including numeracy and literacy.

More than half of the roughly 1.6 billion students left out of school worldwide were from lower-income countries. Across all countries surveyed, these tended to be richer, urban households with more educated parents than unconnected households. (International Development Research Centre, 2022)

Children were also let down by multiple other factors, including high costs of Internet access, lack of devices, and schools not being ready to digitally substitute. It remains unclear whether the strategies implemented during the lockdowns can really be considered education, and the long-term outcomes are yet to be seen.

Gender inequalities are inextricably linked with education and income inequalities. Better support for online education strategies, with a special focus on support for women and girls, would help to close this gender inequality gap.


The CORE Project: Towards a Global Digital Compact

UN Secretary-General António Guterres described digitalisation as one of the seismic shifts that will shape the 21st Century. In accordance with this, digitalisation is one of the central pillars of the UN’s Our Common Agenda, which mandates the development of a Global Digital Compact to “outline shared principles for an open, free and secure digital future for all”.

The pandemic and the uneven responses to it by states, big corporations and the multinational private sector in developing countries have highlighted the centrality of foundational digital inclusion, not only for effective citizenship and democratic participation but for life opportunities in the increasingly globalised economy and polity and indeed for survival under disaster conditions. Digitalisation also plays a key role in reviving and renewing state formation.

The social, economic, and political effects of COVID-19 are evident and still being felt in low-income nations around the world. These effects carry the risk of exacerbating inequality, escalating poverty, fostering insecurity, undermining governance, and having a long-lasting impact on the ability to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. For this reason, there was an urgent need for trustworthy, contextually grounded local data and evidence to guide appropriate responses to this global pandemic, as extensive measures are being implemented in low-income contexts.

The IDRC-funded Covid Responses for Equity (CORE) rapid-response funding mechanism supported 21 projects over three years across Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East to provide research, evidence, and data for policy and practice solutions to lessen the social and economic effects of COVID-19 and encourage the pandemic’s recovery. The objective of this programme is to use emerging research to guide short-, medium-, and long-term interventions that take advantage of chances to “build back better” by creating stronger policies and more equitable and productive practices.

Partners and funders

After Access logo

Publishing information

LIRNEasia | 12 Balcombe Place, Colombo, Sri Lanka | +94 11 267 1160 |
IEP (Instituto de Estudios Peruanos) | Horacio Urteaga 694, Jesús María, Lima, Peru | + 51 1 200 8500 |
Research ICT Africa | 17 Dock Road, V&A Waterfront, Cape Town, South Africa | +27 21 447 6332 |

Unless stated otherwise, content is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license.