Paving a digital highway to the SDGs

Europe's World

Digital, Skills & Inequalities

Picture of Jüri Seilenthal
Jüri Seilenthal

Director-General for Foreign Economic Policy and Development Cooperation at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Estonia

Digitalisation is an overarching priority for the Estonian Presidency of the European Council. Throughout the latter half of 2017, our goal has been to convince the EU and its member states that there is much to be gained from mainstreaming digital thinking across policy sectors.

We definitely know what we are talking about when it comes to the digital agenda. Estonia has been moving towards reliable and transparent digital governance since the early 2000s, and it is quite difficult now to imagine how we did things before going digital.

Our county’s sustainable development has benefited hugely from having a digital mind set. Everybody in Estonia can achieve a great deal using digital tools, from completing tax declarations in under ten minutes to voting in government elections online.

Looking at the broader development landscape, digitalisation is a goal in and of itself as well as a tool with which to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. Indeed, the success of various SDGs could benefit from a digital component.

For example, we could make progress in providing universal healthcare to more people (SDG 3) by using e-health solutions. Through bilateral development cooperation, Estonia is already contributing to an e-health system in Moldova that allows patients in remote areas to consult with relevant doctors online before making a long journey to hospital.

Access to information enhances participation and thereby legitimacy

It can also contribute to more accountable and inclusive societies, and through this take us a step closer to the achievement of SDG 16: peace, justice and strong institutions. Access to information enhances participation, and in fact creates conditions for meaningful participation and thereby legitimacy.

One of the benefits of digital solutions is that they do not discriminate against users. Your computer or your smartphone does not care about your age, gender, nationality or disability. In that sense, digitalisation can be a powerful tool for empowering those who today are economically, politically and socially vulnerable.

This should all start with the creation of secure digital identities, which is a precondition for numerous e-governance services and achieves SDG target 16.9 – to provide a legal identity for all, including birth registration. An electronic civil registry based on this secure identity could also facilitate the compilation of electoral lists and could help determine the number of people in need for certain basic services.

A digital ID paired with a valid signature could also be used in legal procedures, facilitating trade and in future also regulating migration. Of course, these measures have to be matched with investments in cyber security to ensure the sufficient amount of protection of data.

Digital solutions also help to collect more resources for sustainable development by contributing to more efficient and transparent tax systems. The e-traces left behind by every online activity are also a powerful anti-corruption tool, if balanced with privacy measures. At every turn, economic efficiency comes from the time saved.

Your computer does not discriminate against your age, gender, nationality or disability

For these services to be effective, there have to be accessible connections. Yet the challenge is to improve connectivity and services at the same time, not to treat connectivity as a prerequisite for starting to develop services. The uneven spread of connectivity is an issue but not a crucial one. The World Bank’s 2016 development report shows that many more people have the option for an internet connection than actually use one. The same applies here in Europe.

An interesting factor of digitalisation is that it is taking place all over the world as we speak. New technologies are being used in developing as well as developed countries and that these technologies offer new possibilities to tackle issues related to sustainable development.  Digitalisation is not exclusive to developed states and thus offers an opportunity for new kinds of mutually beneficial partnerships. Cooperation in the field of digitalisation is not a one-way street. There is the high possibility that problems we are struggling with in Europe have already been solved somewhere else in the world. We should use all opportunities to learn best practices of each other. EU development cooperation policy should increasingly use the tools of digitalisation so we are not the ones left behind.

Everything digital is Beta all the time. Services go online before they are 100% ready and will be improved in real time based on feedback from users. We as policymakers have to provide space for learning from mistakes in our planning if we are to create ever-better services.


This article is from the Development Policy Forum discussion paper ‘International development and the digital age’, in which international tech and development experts consider how to use new technologies to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and generate ‘digital dividends’ for the developing world. The discussion paper will also build on the Policy Insight debate ‘Making the digital revolution work better, faster for development’, which was held on 7 November in Brussels.

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