In a world where digital transformation is rapidly reshaping the global development landscape, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) is emerging as a key player.
UNDP, with its broad reach across 170 countries, holds a unique position at the intersection of technology, governance and social welfare, orchestrating digital strategies to tackle everything from poverty alleviation to climate change.
At the bustling Web Summit in Lisbon, I spoke to UNDP’s Chief Digital Officer, Robert Opp. Our conversation discussed the complexities of using digital technologies for social advancement, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which acted as a catalyst in many ways.
“The pandemic has really exposed the weaknesses and strengths of every country’s digital infrastructure as they try to maintain social distancing and do things like COVID tracing and vaccination support in the digital realm,” OP told me. Was doing.”
Organizations like UNDP saw requests skyrocket from countries seeking help in creating specific digital tools such as databases for health management and vaccine tracking.
For example, in India, UNDP supported the rapid development of a national Covid vaccine tracking system that reached millions of people, building on pre-existing digital vaccine infrastructure.
But more than just digital “band-aids,” many countries realized the need for comprehensive digital transformation strategies.
“Countries that didn’t have national policies in this area approached us and asked for support and we would provide input and sometimes resources and learnings from other countries. We have a framework that we call inclusive digital transformation, which means The aim is to put the user first, put the citizen first and implement digital transformation in a way that no one is left behind,” OP said.
Elaborating further, OP emphasized the idea of “digital public infrastructure” – the creation of shared digital platforms and services that can enable broad access and benefits across society.
He drew an analogy with the development of traditional public infrastructure such as roads, railways and electricity grids. Just as these physical structures fueled economic and social development, fundamental digital building blocks can catalyze innovation and inclusion.
He cited India’s remarkable progress in digital financial inclusion as evidence of the transformative power of digital public infrastructure. Government implementation of Aadhaar along with the creation of digital payments platforms allowed India to provide digital IDs to more than 1 billion residents in just a decade. This digital foundation then enabled private banks and financial services companies to rapidly expand banking access to millions of unbanked Indians.
OP believes this approach is the key to catalyzing digital transformation in a way that benefits all levels of society.
However, getting this right means not only focusing on the technical, infrastructure side of the problem, but also taking into account other factors that hinder people’s access to the internet, lack of digital skills and lack of affordability in the first place. can do.
In this regard, UNDP’s view is that bridging the digital divide and digitalizing systems do not need to happen sequentially – progress can be made simultaneously on both fronts.
OP cited Bangladesh as an example. Over the past 15 years, the country, with support from UNDP, has made a major effort to digitalize government systems and services.
“When the project started, many citizens lacked internet connectivity. What the government did is set up several thousand digital access points in rural areas, which are run by local entrepreneurs, such as mother-and -Pop shops. That way, even if you don’t have a phone or connectivity, you can go there and access government digital services, for example applying for a passport.”
Such initiatives show how the digital divide can be bridged while introducing online services at the same time.
However, challenges remain. The rapid pace of technological progress often outstrips policy developments, requiring agile governance capable of adapting to these changes. Additionally, the potential for AI to exacerbate existing inequalities is a significant concern.
“One of our major concerns is that countries that are more equipped and proficient on AI platforms, both in terms of development and usage, may have a much faster development process and countries that do not have the skills and capabilities may be left behind. Are.” get left behind.”
Empowering local innovators through its 91 Accelerator Labs that foster startups around the world is therefore a key element of UNDP’s strategy.
However, retaining local tech talent remains a challenge, as skilled individuals often move abroad in search of opportunities.
Another concern is the uneven availability and representativeness of datasets in different parts of the world.
The OP said, “There is a lot of English content on the Internet that has come from North America and to a lesser extent Europe. This is less so when you go to sub-Saharan Africa or other regions that are not as affluent and have not had as much data. Haven’t contributed.” ,
This disparity can lead to AI models that do not effectively serve small, underrepresented online communities.
One way to address these disparities could be to promote the creation of open source tools and data sets. Opie outlined this approach as a means of creating a digital commons that provides a level playing field for nations globally.
Ensuring that the benefits of AI are universally accessible will require a concerted global effort, involving both the public and private sectors, to prevent the most marginalized members of society from being even further sidelined. Can be stopped.
“We really need to have an honest conversation about how we truly leverage the power of AI for the benefit of all people, not just certain markets,” Opie urged.