Designing a Digital Revolution for Development
In an age of rapid technological change, developing countries must capitalise on digital opportunities — or risk being left behind. This piece sets out the how, writes Professor Benno Ndulu.
This year, half the world is online for the first time ever. Technological advances have revolutionized the way we live, work, and connect. And it’s developing countries that have the most to gain from this digital revolution. New technologies can enable low- and middle-income countries to build new industries, deliver public services much more efficiently, boost markets, and transform people’s lives and livelihoods. Digital technologies offer developing countries a chance to take charge and grow in ways not seen since the manufacturing revolution that transformed South East Asia.
If badly managed, however, digital technologies also have the potential to entrench exclusion, create new ways for the powerful to abuse the weak, and render obsolete people’s livelihoods and jobs. Millions of marginalised people — including the poorest, rural communities, and women — could be left even further behind. The stakes could not be higher.
To take advantage of the opportunities to accelerate development and avoid marginalization, countries have to get digitally ready.
But how can countries — and business — get it right?
The Pathways for Prosperity Commission’s Digital Roadmap — the cumulation of two years of research and engagement around the world covering diverse experiences, from tech start-ups in Bangalore and ministries in Ethiopia to nomadic farmers in Mongolia, — offers guidance to answer this question.
The Commission — co-chaired by Melinda Gates, Indonesian Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati and pan-African entrepreneur Strive Masiyiwa, with its Secretariat based at Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government, gathered a rich body of evidence to show how lower-income countries can harness new technologies to deliver development — for all citizens.
The Digital Roadmap sets out five areas for action by governments, businesses, civil society and donors to make the digital age work for everyone.
One: There needs to be agreement on how to manage the pros and cons and the fates of winners and losers in transiting to the digital age. To help, countries should create a national digital compact: a joint vision for digital transformation. There are trade-offs to be made — a compact will help focus minds, shape direction, and bring everyone on board. Countries like South Africa, Mongolia and Ethiopia are already developing their future digital visions.
Two: It’s tempting to put tech at the centre of the digital age. But a digital vision needs to be centred around people, not technology. People should not be merely connected to the internet, but equipped to benefit from potential opportunities from it, and protected from its potential harms. To thrive, people need digital skills, as well as the chance for their voices to be heard. Trust in safe, transparent and accountable digital systems are key for success.
Three: A thriving digital economy requires essential physical infrastructure (electricity and internet access), foundational digital systems (digital ID and finance) and investment capital. These are the basic ingredients needed for the adoption and application of digital technology. Without these foundations in place, countries will struggle to deliver meaningful change.
Four: Countries will need to actively design for inclusion. Increasing internet take-up, for instance, is not just (or even) a question of new infrastructure: 80% of people in developing countries already live under a cellular internet signal, but only 50% currently use the internet). Instead new business models are needed. Operators should explore pricing models to make services accessible to the poorest people. In Kenya, for example, Poa! Networks offers small affordable data packages for just $0.10, delivering access for the poorest people.
Governments, business and civil society also need to tackle social norms that limit women’s participation. Greater investments are needed in women’s and girls’ education so they too can contribute to and benefit from a digital economy and society.
Five: Governments must ensure that laws and regulations are flexible enough to keep up with the speed of change. That doesn’t mean adopting Chinese, European or US tech policies wholesale, as is happening today; rather, governments should localise regulations that work for their country contexts and needs. Coordination between governments is also important. Richer countries need to accommodate and make room for developing countries in global rule making.
The bottom line is that governments and societies cannot sit back passively and watch the digital revolution evolve around them. They must take charge and design their own digital destinies. Getting digitally ready takes vision, collaboration and deliberate planning to ensure everyone benefits. While there is no one size fits all — a localised, proactive effort is needed now — before it’s too late.
Professor Benno Ndulu is the Mwalimu Nyerere Professorial Chair, University of Dar es Salaam, Visiting Professor at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford, and Academic Director of the Pathways for Prosperity Commission.
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