Getting stronger together: Promising signals that international digital cooperation can accelerate digital transformation in Africa

Over the past two weeks, newspapers have been filled with progress made by the international scientific community to trial and release global vaccine candidates to inoculate us against COVID-19. While this critical international cooperation has justifiably garnered major global headlines, we here in the digital development sector have been focused on a new type of international cooperation facilitated by the pandemic. Last week, we witnessed with optimism the official launch of the EU Digital for Development (D4D) Hub, a first-of-its-kind cooperation of European Member States supporting digital transformation.

This effort, launched by several European Heads of State, came together in a matter of months, signaling the increasing importance that EU Member States are placing on advancing nationally-led, demand-driven digital transformation agendas. With support from 11 key EU Member States such as Germany, France, Belgium, Estonia, and Luxembourg, the Hub will launch first for Africa. It will bring African and European innovators and decision-makers together, as well as help channel digital investments and technology solutions into Africa and spur new forms of innovation and responsible data use.

Such an effort has long been necessary, but progress towards this goal has been accelerated in 2020 by a need to help countries invest in digital technologies to support national capacity-building and resilience in the post-pandemic recovery period. The launch of the EU D4D Hub demonstrates a significant mutual commitment from European and African leaders to work directly as counterparts and marshal the necessary technical and financial resources to make digital transformation a reality before the next emergency hits.

The launch of the Hub also demonstrates a significant intent to make digital cooperation more demand-driven and respectful of national needs and sovereignty. It is heartening to see European nations self-organizing into a “Team Europe” approach to coordinating resources towards regional- and country-level support, but we also see them treating this as a true partnership that welcomes collaboration with their African counterparts. As European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in her opening remark: “We will create a space where European and African businesses can connect, learn, and work with each other. It can be a two-way street.” Moving forward, we look to our European and African partners to show the world how this two-way partnership will manifest, and we look forward to seeing AU member states and governments being at the forefront to demonstrate ownership in co-leading this joint digital development agenda.

As the stewards of the Principles for Digital Development, we are also glad to see the signatories committing to them as a guiding framework for the initiative. We see this work – particularly in light of the Secretary General’s Roadmap for Digital Cooperation and renewed multi-stakeholder cooperation around digital capacity-building – as evidence of a movement towards more collaborative approaches across the digital ecosystem. Moving forward, we hope that lessons from these initiatives will help us reduce duplication and improve the effectiveness of our (joint) investments in the years to come.

At DIAL, we embrace the “Team Europe” spirit and its partnership ethos in our work. We welcome and will contribute to the EU-AU Data Flagship, reflecting to our European counterparts what we and our partners have learned from using mobile data for development in over 20 African countries to scale up meaningful use, and data-driven governance and response. We are also collaborating with two key hub members, Estonia and Germany, and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) on an initiative to inform design standards and best practices for digital governments. This work is intended to help demonstrate how modular and reusable digital components, called “building blocks”, can support the digital transformation of government services.

This partnership reflects a core belief underscoring both our work and the launch of the D4D Hub; namely, that digital cooperation must serve national governments by helping them to kickstart their digital transformation journeys. We plan to invest more resources in accelerating national digital transformation efforts and responsible data use (reflecting our learning from our recent Listening Study with Smart Africa); building global alignment to make digital cooperation more effective (a key need reflected in our recent Leadership Brief); and connecting proven solutions to make it easier for governments to chart their paths forward (see the launch announcement for our partnership with ITU, GIZ, and Estonia).

In this launch, we see strong signals that digital cooperation to accelerate digital transformation is well on its way, and that our own work seems to be reflecting where the digital development community is moving. We welcome this more unified approach, which is focused on aligning support towards regional and country-specific needs, strengthening the channels for multi-stakeholder development cooperation and investment, and expanding the available supply of global technology solutions. And we stand ready to invest our resources, with European and African partners, to help make this critical agenda a reality.