Across the globe, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of digital adoption and interconnection, as well as the role digital technologies play in providing information and services to people who need it most. The pandemic may indeed accelerate the transition to a digital future by highlighting areas where digitalization is not happening fast enough, but it will require innovative and coordinated financing and technical support from global actors and regional alliances in support of countries.
To help the global community understand these challenges and their impacts, DIAL convened two panels at the Concordia Annual Summit earlier this week, on the periphery of the 75th annual UN General Assembly. Ably led by DIAL CEO Kate Wilson and our Senior Director for Insights and Impact Laura Walker McDonald, these two sessions focused on digital cooperation, looking at ways in which the global community can come together in the wake of COVID-19 to promote a national digital transformation agenda and achieve the SDGs.
This year was also notable for having gone completely virtual. While this comes with some downsides and trade-offs, it has enabled us to be more inclusive and expand the reach of the event, a necessity this year since these are issues that demand both a global dialogue and a global audience. The format worked very well, and we look forward to seeing how hybrid formats can make our sector more inclusive going forward.
Our first mainstage panel on Tuesday, entitled “Digital Cooperation for SDG Impact” (pictured above), offered a strong case for how digital technologies can have a real impact both on the COVID-19 response, and for our increasingly challenging goal of achieving the SDGs by 2030. Dr Cecilia Scharp, Assistant Director General for International Programmes and Policy Support at Sida, made clear that even before the COVID-19 crisis, the divide between the digital “haves” and the digital “have-nots” was stark, necessitating a commitment to leave no one behind and reach everyone. Vyjayanti Desai, Program Manager for the World Bank’s ID4D and GP2X Programs, also made clear that government must reach communities not served by existing social protection measures and ensure continuity of benefits and social assistance during the pandemic.
There were also positive stories and notes for optimism from the panel on the future potential of digital cooperation. The Gates Foundation’s Interim Director for Health Systems, Liz Clyma, reiterated how digital cooperation has allowed for innovations in health systems and value chain innovation. More broadly, our panelists made clear that digital cooperation is a necessity, and that countries must be in the driver’s seat. Global actors must align to national and regional digital strategies, and pool resources to enable country-level support and solutions. For instance, Axel Klaphake, Director Economic and Social Development, Digitalisation from GIZ, described how Germany is leading a ‘Team Europe’ approach to regional African digital platforms and policies.
This theme of global alignment to support national digital agendas led into our second session, entitled “A Whole-of-Society Agenda: Global Cooperation for National Digital Transformation.” In three linked conversations, panelists in this session looked at how the pandemic has accelerated demand and adoption of digital technologies by country governments. Panelists reiterated the centrality of digital transformation to pandemic recovery and to building back stronger and more resilient, allowing governments to better provide digital services, grow the digital economy, and ensure that no one is left behind.
Robert Opp, the Chief Digital Officer for UNDP, made the case for a national digital transformation agendas when he noted that the pandemic was increasing government demand to move citizen services online, promote digital skills development, and increase digital citizen engagement. Panelists also shared real examples of what this looks like in practice. Didier Nkurikiyimfura, Director of Technology and Innovation for the Smart Africa Secretariat (pictured above with Dr Kate Getao of the Kenyan ICT Board and Laura Walker McDonald of DIAL), spoke to the need to connect to local realities and allow supply-driven understandings to frame global and regional responses to country requests for support. Erik Arnold from Microsoft also stressed the role the private sector can play in getting behind both national and regional platforms and strategies, as well as supporting (but not dominating) interoperability standards and promoting the scalability open source systems.
Together, our panelists for these sessions made clear that without digital cooperation aligned to national and regional priorities, we will continue to see duplicative investments and top-down initiatives which undermine locally-driven progress. This unanimous agreement indicates that digital cooperation is best practice; though in practice we know that investments, timelines, and priorities are often disjointed. To this end, this moment of international cooperation during a crisis is an important opportunity for the digital development sector to center national and regional digital transformation agendas in recovery programming. These country-driven strategies will help lay the foundation for participatory, whole-of-society approaches to building and sustaining inclusive digital services, economies, and societies.
We want to thank our audience and wonderful speakers for fantastic discussions and look forward to helping the global community address these issues through our work in the year ahead. Look out for the Listening Study we conducted jointly with Smart Africa (to help understand country requests for support on national digital transformation), as well as a Leadership Brief on the importance of national digital transformation agenda, both of which will be published in October. And make sure to also take a look at our recent DIAL 2.0 strategy for an idea of what’s coming up for us at DIAL beginning in January.
See you next year, Concordia!