Access to digital technologies can empower poor and disadvantaged people, create jobs and widen access to health and educational services. But the first step must be to find digital applications that solve practical problems and make a difference to people’s lives.
That was the message of a Development Policy Forum event on 7 November, where development actors and technology experts discussed how the digital revolution is impacting international development.
Estonia is famous for its advanced e-government, providing every public service digitally by default. Now, it is helping other countries build up digital systems that will deliver public services better. “We believe the UN Sustainable Development Goals will benefit from digitalisation,” said Jüri Seilenthal, Director-General for Foreign Economic Policy and Development Cooperation at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Estonia. Universal healthcare comes under SDG Goal 3, for example, and digital solutions can make healthcare systems more efficient and effective. “Digital systems don’t discriminate against users. They don’t know your gender nationality or disability, so they can contribute to more comfortable and inclusive societies.”
However, many people are natural technophobes, who would prefer if possible to avoid dealing with new, digital ways of doing things. So it’s important that they see the immediate benefits of technology. One example is an Indian service for farmers that provides a variety of information, from weather forecasts to advice on pesticide use. The service is highly relevant to the farmers, but also very simple: it works through mobile phone text messages.
“The key thing is that most of the innovations come from a frugal mentality,” said G Subramanian, Principal Innovation Evangelist at Tata Consultancy Services (TCS). “We are looking at solutions that can be low-cost and done on the cheap. The services must be relevant to people.”
Digital skills have become a key to job markets round the world, so young people who have not learned them will have reduced opportunities. “There is not just one profile of digitally excluded young people,” said Dana Schurmans, Digital Inclusion Expert at the ACP Young Professionals Network. “There are lots of variables. It is social-support education, the need they have to use digital tools. There are young people who are poor, and digital media helps them to find a job and do their homework.”
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This event was part of our Development Policy Forum (DPF), which brings together a number of crucial development actors, including the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), the Agence Française de Développement (AFD), the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), the European Investment Bank (EIB), the United Nations and the World Bank to contribute to the global and European conversation on development. Through its activities and publications, the DPF reflects the rapidly-changing global debate on growth and development and seeks to encourage fresh, up-to-date thinking on the multiple challenges facing the development community.