Holding Back The Tide:

Riad Meddeb
Jun 7 · 9 min read

Confronting the climate change crisis collectively through digital transformation and inter-island cooperation

With the rapid and unpredictable rise in massive weather-related events, it is becoming increasingly necessary to build resilience into national development strategies. A natural event, such as a hurricane or flood (even if caused by an unnatural cause like accelerated climate change) only becomes a disaster when countries are unprepared — or have a distinct geographic disadvantage — such as the risk exposure of small Islands due to their relatively low elevations and locations.

Intensified by global warming, tropical storms are becoming more destructive, with higher wind speeds and more precipitation, capable of wiping out entire islands. In 2017, when Hurricane Irma hit the Caribbean island of Barbuda, it resulted in damage or destruction of 95% of the buildings, including government facilities. With such a devastating effect on infrastructure, it is likely that almost all government data in paper format was destroyed as well, raising an important concern regarding the safety of data, which is of critical importance in disaster recovery efforts.

While efforts are being undertaken to make these vulnerable communities more resilient, such as by increasing water and food security, improving preparedness from natural disasters such as flooding and drought, and tackling degradation of land and ecosystem services, it is essential that these efforts are extended to digital infrastructure as well.

Data is the backbone of every government given that all public services provided by them such as public financing, justice, border guards and police, healthcare, and education are based on various datasets stored in national and municipal databases. Such data allows governments to design and provide public services and plan national development efforts more efficiently. Moreover, digital data offers opportunities to leverage advances in technology (including artificial intelligence and automation) to improve public services. There are already small countries like Estonia (population 1,3 M), providing 99% public services online for citizens and businesses.

The digital government approach is already articulated in the policies and action plans of most Small Islands Developing States (SIDS). However, there is a gap between plans and reality, due to a lack of conceptual understanding, resources, or implementation capacity. The availability of digital data and storage capacities for most SIDS are limited. Most data is either in the paper format or is kept digitally with limited protection and often few backups stored on the same island, leaving it vulnerable. This means that the destruction of data in the case of a disastrous hurricane, flooding, or an earthquake could delay restoration of public services for many years. In Haiti for example, after the devastating earthquake in 2010, the government services, nine years later, have not been fully restored after the loss of almost all public data stored in paper records.

What response is needed?

This speaks to the need to develop digital infrastructure and modernize public administration in all SIDS. Most citizens in SIDS are already in the digital age and are connected through devices such as smartphones and tablets. (Even in developing countries, mobile broadband use on average already represented 50% of the population in 2017, according to ITU). As governments modernize and gear up to meet the needs of their citizens and businesses, they must include the digital transformation of public services, starting with more secure and sustainable management of government data. Further, there should be easy access to e-governance platforms for all citizens to ensure higher adoption rates.

The roadmap to achieving a resilient digital government requires four key steps:

(i) Digitization of data

The first step would be to digitize the most critical data, prioritizing databases relating to: people, businesses, land and property ownership, and vehicles and boats. Digitizing would give SIDS a variety of benefits:

· Properly digitized datasets and registries are backed up easily;

· Data can be shared across different government agencies; this reduces redundant work across agencies to collect data manually, lessening the burden on the government and speeding up processes;

· Data can be more swiftly accessed in the event of a crisis.

Once the digitization is complete and digital infrastructure is established, governments can further develop processes to manage data and capture the benefits of digitization through e-governance platforms that allow for services such as applications, passports, utility payments, and grievances to be addressed online. The government of Georgia, for example, is using blockchain to register land titles and validate property-related transactions. Such applications can have a significant impact on disaster recovery efforts systems by resolving ownership disputes for properties and allowing for faster restoration of public services, ultimately resulting in a more resilient governance system.

(ii) Data storage strategy to mitigate data loss risks

The next step is to ensure that governments put in place adequate and robust data storage capacities. Traditionally, this would include having the first dataset located at the institute that maintains it, with a back-up copy at a second, independent location; or to create monthly/quarterly copies in clouds of the key registries and send them to embassies overseas for safeguarding.

However, with digitization, a more advanced solution now available is to store the data remotely in the cloud, with appropriate measures in place for cyber-security which remains a critical risk. The data amounts are surprisingly small: the size of the Estonian National Population Database with records of 1,3 million people is only 25 GB, comparable with the storage capacity of a Blue-Ray disk.

(iii) Cooperation in digital infrastructure management

A key element of collaboration among the SIDS should be on sharing digital infrastructure. Modern and innovative ICT management does not demand that governments keep all necessary infrastructure in their data centers. Now, with submarine cables bringing the internet to almost every large inhabited island, it is easier to share not only digital infrastructure, but also investments and running costs between the interested governments. Private sector and public-private partnerships (PPP) have a key role to play in building this digital ecosystem as well by supporting the implementation of digital platforms, e-trade/e-commerce, hosting (including cloud computing), and security.

· Shared infrastructure would allow for storage of national databases copies in multiple locations (countries), and keep them updated (synchronized) almost in real time;

· Infrastructure could be set up geographically with the establishment of three potential regional data hubs in (a) Caribbean, (b) Pacific, and © Africa, Indian Ocean, Mediterranean and South China Sea (AIMS), to allow countries in the same region to work together;

· Data could be stored and synchronized in very remote locations (Aruba data in Japan, Estonia or another SIDS country, creating a win-win situation) to manage covariate risks, reducing the damages incurred from a wider natural disaster in the region.

Ensuring that e-trade (or e-commerce) can develop and grow in SIDS is essential, as e-trade can significantly drive economic growth and job creation. There are a number of initiatives underway in this area, including the “eTrade for all”[1] which aims to improve the ability of developing countries, and particularly Least developed countries, to use and benefit from e-commerce; and the Australian government funded ‘E-commerce Aid for Trade Fund’ which plans to build e-commerce capacity and capability across the Indo-Pacific[2]; and the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations Plus (PACER+), a regional development-centered trade agreement with the key aims of supporting Pacific island countries to participate in and benefit from regional and global trade, thus driving economic growth[3].

(iv) Joint policy planning across SIDS

Finally, joint policy planning, standardized e-governance architecture, and systematic solutions development are necessary to enable SIDS to benefit from modern ICT solutions, which may otherwise be inaccessible to each country separately, due to lack of financial and human resources. Better data management would not only make the governments more efficient with different agencies working on the same platform that would create more accountability, but inter-governmental cooperation would also provide an opportunity to move forward more swiftly.

· Development of joint platforms would provide access to common information such as regional weather analysis, improving resilience and disaster preparedness;

· Digital cooperation and sharing mechanisms could be extended to physical resources, further reducing costs;

· Data analysis could support better decision making and improve regional disaster recovery efforts.

To address these and other challenges, The Small Islands Developing States Network (SIDSnet) was first established in 1997 as a direct follow-up to the Barbados Programme of Action. The mission of SIDSnet was to support the sustainable development of SIDS through enhanced information and communication technology.

Through SIDSnet, this wealth of information is easily accessible by all stakeholders — and could be used for all the purposes outlined in this paper. Furthermore, SIDSnet improves the visibility and awareness of the central challenges encumbering island development, thereby raising the profile of SIDS in the international policy circles that influence the flow of financial resources and technical assistance.

The digitization of SIDS may follow different paths, guided by different levels of vulnerability to climate change risks, cost implications and political will. Based on the digital strategy adopted, there are three potential outcomes for the islands:

· No modernization actions

Countries do not take any action and continue to keep their data mostly in paper format. This would be detrimental to their databases in the event of a natural disaster such as a hurricane or flood, leading to longer periods of administrative chaos and significantly higher recovery costs.

· Isolated action in different countries

Countries take isolated action that focuses on their development alone. As a result of not collaborating and joining forces, the financial and human resources related burden in those countries would be high, and thus would restrict their ability to digitally transform. Moreover, with no redundancy or backing up of data in other countries, the risks of data loss may still remain.

· Joint regional action

Joint action between SIDS countries will empower the governments through digitization. This cooperation would result in not only secure storage of data, but it would also mark the beginning of full-scale digital transformation, paving the road for e-governance and online services, digital industry advancement, and the creation of new technology jobs on the islands. Even with severe natural disasters that damage the physical infrastructure, downloading government data from a cloud platform and remote overseas locations would still be possible with digitization, allowing for continued access to public services. Another area for cooperation is with respect to the vast amount of data possessed by the private sector related to climate, geological studies, satellite intelligence, and economic analysis that the governments do not even access at this point, creating an opportunity to collaborate and share this wealth of information across islands.

Moreover, regional cooperation would provide better financing opportunities to the island countries. With small and undiversified economies, the SIDS are often perceived as high-risk investments with little attractiveness to foreign investors. Developing partnerships such as Pacific SIDS will allow these countries to build technical and financial capacity to access climate finance funds which often look favorably on a multi-partner proposal.

With rising sea-levels, tropical storms, and salt-water contaminations, the damaging impact of climate change is inevitable and requires the world to take action. The challenges that SIDS countries face are often unique to them, and therefore require greater collaboration to be resolved. Digital cooperation is one significant step toward that change. Doing nothing is not an option.

Authors: Riad Meddeb, Sustainable Development & Economic Recovery Policy Advisor for the United Nations Development Program; Hannes Astok, Deputy Director for Strategy and Development, E-governance Academy of Estonia; Rajat Malhotra, Kelley School of Business, Indiana University.

[1] https://etradeforall.org/

[2] https://foreignminister.gov.au/releases/Pages/2019/mp_mr_190313.aspx

[3] https://dfat.gov.au/trade/agreements/not-yet-in-force/pacer/Pages/pacific-agreement-on-closer-economic-relations-pacer-plus.aspx

Riad Meddeb

Written by

Seasoned economist and international development professional specializing in trade, investment, migration, SIDS and technology innovation.