EU Digital4Development

Can digital transformation benefit international development?

Fast-paced digital transformation has changed the world dramatically. Digital technologies are becoming a powerful tool for enabling sustainable development. While technologies are being developed with an unprecedented speed governments and society should think of how they could be used to address biggest societal challenges such as poverty, violation of human rights, climate change, corruption etc.

Governments should be able to support digital transformation with timely, inclusive and forward-looking tech policies. Such policies require wide collaboration among tech community, decision-makers, businesses and civil society on national and international level.

Developing countries are already unlocking the benefits of digital transformation and digital economy and its essential to ensure that this process is inclusive and leaves no one behind. The biggest challenges faced by developing countries in the digital sector are digital divide, affordability and limited access to digital services and internet, absence of digital infrastructure and low-quality of education which makes it hard to compete in this digital era.

The value of internet

Internet is a basic need for human development in 21 century and should be accessible to everyone. Internet has the capacity to improve existing healthcare and education services, contribute to raising awareness on human rights issues, enhance accountability and transparency of government, support community development.

Increase of the internet penetration to 75% of the population in all developing countries (from 35% currently) would add US$2 trillion to GDP and create more than 140 million jobs worldwide (World Bank, 2019). It is also important to make sure that broadband access is expanded equally in cities and rural areas as digital divide remains one of the biggest challenges of digital development both in developed and developing countries.

Connectivity and affordability are key for efficient public services and emerging jobs

In the last decade the number of internet users has grown from 1 billion in 2005 to 4, 4 billion in 2019. However, while the broadband prices are decreasing globally, developing countries are struggling to afford broadband subscriptions, especially in Least Developed countries and Small Island Developing countries. For example, only 30% of people in Africa have mobile broadband subscription and 15% are connected to the internet at home.

Boosting connectivity through increasing access and affordability is essential for disruptive innovations in developing countries. Connectivity links consumers to businesses but also enables innovators to share ideas and seek funding and advice through the shared economy. Connectivity also helps governments to provide social services including education and healthcare in a more efficient and sometimes only possible manner.

Furthermore, internet is powering many smart technologies including in infrastructure, engineering and services delivery. It is creating new jobs and is helping to develop emerging job skills, which may become a source of revenue for those living in poverty. Freelance and other outsourcing platforms are already very popular in developing countries as they value skills and cost over status or prestigious education. Faster and more affordable broadband can help to expand these platforms which are expected to provide millions of jobs according to different estimates.

Strengthening trust and combatting corruption

ICTs can support anticorruption efforts in different ways. Many studies have proven its efficiency in ensuring accountability and transparency of governments as well as boosting civic participation. For example, by enhancing the access to public information citizens can better scrutinize public spending and report suspicious information. From the other hand, emerging technologies can provide new corruption opportunities through, for example darkweb or bags in the system.

Nevertheless, majority of studies in e-government very positive about its impact on government’s efficiency and corruption fighting. One of the most promising emerging technologies which has the capacity to reduce corruption in public sector is blockchain. It has been applied in Africa to trace diamond trade deals, in Eastern Europe to register public data and track tax avoidance.

Another promising innovation which can contribute to corruption fighting is Artificial Intelligence. For instance, AI has the ability to detect flaws in financial transaction data, taxes and budgets. However, lack of scientific evidences and current state of development of AI make it difficult to assess its potential in combating corruption.

While these emerging technologies have a great potential to fight corruption, they cannot do it alone. Therefore, to be effective, their implementation needs to be embedded in broader reforms of public administration.

Healthcare and crisis prevention

Limited access to healthcare is another challenge faced by developing countries, especially those with the highest number of people living behind the poverty line. New technologies cannot solve all issues related to healthcare but could help to overcome some traditional barriers such as access to remote community, awareness on basic health services etc. For example, there are drones which can detect potential viruses and epidemics in remote areas, Mobile Apps which are able to perform some basic examination of patients or report on medicine stocks around the country.  

Disruptive technologies are not only aimed at making people’s lives easier but also ensuring basic conditions for life where it is necessary. At the same time, we cannot neglect the importance of traditional healthcare infrastructure and doctors which remain the primary source of healthcare and cannot be substituted by newest digital solutions and smart Apps.

Education and innovations

While more and more children around the globe are receiving access to primary education, in some parts of the world access to primary education remains a challenge. Today, 32,6 million children of primary-school age and 25,7 million adolescents are not going to school in sub-Saharan Africa (World Bank, 2019). The quality of primary and secondary education also remains an issue. Digital solutions can provide some additional resources to traditional teaching though mobile and online channels. Advocates of digital education argue that the quality of digital education sources is often higher than qualification of teachers in the poorest countries. Also, it is cheaper to sustain a school without or with very few teachers. From the other hand, multiple researches on primary education are stressing that there is no digital solution which would substitute a teacher and states should take full responsibility for providing traditional public education.

It is recommended in this paper, that any decision involving public education should be taken according to particular needs in different countries and regions. Digital technologies could indeed improve the quality of education in developing countries but they should remain a part of the solution.

Conclusion

New disruptive technologies have a great potential in fighting poverty and other societal issues faced by developing countries. There is a number of successful cases when technologies benefited job market, public services and governments’ transparency all over the world. While we need to continue exploring the social value of digital and tech innovations it is important to keep in mind that technologies alone cannot solve biggest world’s social and economic challenges.

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