Driving digital transformation in the Arab region
September 24, 2023
As we find ourselves on the verge of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, it is evident that our world is in dire need of accelerated progress. Only twelve percent of the goals are currently deemed on track. To achieve the goals laid out by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a marked shift and innovation in current strategies is urgent.
More than two-thirds of the UN’s targets for sustainable development can benefit directly from digital technologies, according to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
Looking more closely at the opportunities, the implementation of 17 SDGs could be profoundly enhanced through digitalization. This fusion of data and emerging technological trends offers a unique opportunity to expand the reach and impact of the SDGs.
However, one major obstacle standing in the way is the digital divide. Globally, 2.9 billion people are still offline, an estimated 96 percent of whom live in developing countries. In the context of the Arab states, there is an apt example of this.
According to the Arab Development Portal, the percentage of people using the Internet in the Arab region is estimated at 51.6 percent in 2019, with wide variations between different Arab countries. About 30 percent of the population remains offline.
The Arab region has experienced a profound digital transformation over the past decade. Digital connectivity has skyrocketed, with the online population growing significantly, from 28.8 percent in 2012 to a remarkable 70.3 percent in 2022, bringing the number of Internet users to 327 million.
Momentum accelerated during the COVID -19 pandemic and has steadily picked up since, underscoring the growing commitment to digital transformation. Governments across the region have been quick to recognize the urgency of adopting digital technologies and solutions, leading to fundamental changes in societal dynamics and institutional frameworks.
However, nearly 30 percent of the region's population remains excluded from digitalization. Creating a collaborative digital ecosystem, which is at the heart of UNDP’s recent “Digital for Sustainable Development initiative, will drive policy reform, research and development, and promote digital literacy and inclusion to address existing exclusions and leave no one behind.
However, nearly 30 percent of the population of the region remains digitally excluded. Creating a collaborative digital ecosystem at the heart of UNDP’s recent initiative “Digital for Sustainable Development”, will drive policy reform, research and development, and promote digital literacy and inclusion, to address existing exclusions and help leave no one behind.
Which countries in the Arab region are promoting the use of digital technologies to accelerate the SDGs?
In today’s fast-paced digital era, postal services may seem like relics of the past. In Egypt, however, a dynamic collaboration between UNDP and Egypt Post has been rewriting the narrative, embarking on an incredible journey to modernize and expand its services. Since 2005, this partnership has been an example of innovation and inclusivity and has shown that it can help shape the future of public services.
UNDP Egypt partnered with Egypt Post to support the modernization and upgrading of 2,848 post offices, including the iconic museum. These remodeled centers now have state-of-the-art facilities to meet the changing needs of the population.
The partnership between UNDP and Egypt Post is a remarkable example of the transformative power of collaboration and innovation. Egypt Post's commitment to modernization, diversification and inclusive development has made it a mainstay for efficient public services and e-government.
Digital technology is a double-edged sword. Digital spaces and technologies can expand opportunities for young people to participate in democratic processes, facilitate dialog with decision makers, and support civic activism.
Mohamed, from Libya, applies online activism by using digital technologies to reach youth and educate them about their rights, including their rights in civic spaces or in relation to political participation.
As editor-in-chief of “Bilan”, Somalia’s first all-women, editorially independent media unit, Fathi Mohamed Ahmed has paved the way for women since the unit was established almost a year ago with UNDP support. With a string of articles in international media – including the Guardian, the BBC and El Pais – and a large following on the ground, Fathi and her team have shown how women can compete at the highest level of international journalism and bring new stories to the public in Somalia.
Thanks to digital tools and smaller technology, Bilan’s journalists can work more confidently. The women working at Media Bilan learned how to use smaller media devices, advanced tools and software, smartphones, Mac computers, and digital audio equipment to film, edit, and record interviews for their work. This helped them produce high-quality, impactful, and original journalism on all platforms, including television and radio, for distribution throughout Somalia and take on assignments for international media.
“The use of smaller media equipment allows us to do our work without standing out too much as journalists in places where that can be dangerous. Most people are used to male reporters carrying huge equipment, like big cameras and tripods, with one reporter and other man to carry to equipment, but now one woman can do all of that with a smartphone, gimbal, and wireless mics, Fathi says. “Mobile journalism – and women journalists – are the future of media.”
Haya Al Nabulsi, 25, has founded the Damazzle Women Innovators Programme. The goal of this platform is to connect buyers and sellers directly while reducing the high cost of brokerage commissions. The platform offers classified and special ads, slider and photo services to facilitate the buying and selling process and reduce costs for our customers.
“As a woman leading a startup, I believe that leadership is about skills, personalities, planning, connectedness, and transparency, not gender. Although I faced some technical challenges, being a woman has not hindered my ability to lead Damazzle,” said Haya. “In fact, I believe that emotions are a powerful tool to reach a target audience nowadays and being emotional is not a weakness but rather a strength that women can use to lead an organization to success.”
UNDP’s Youth Leadership Programme (YLP) empowers change-makers and supports young women and men to design and implement innovative, impactful, and sustainable development solutions – whether in the form of social enterprises, nonprofits, NGOs, initiatives, or campaigns. YLP builds the region’s most dynamic network working at the intersection of youth, innovation, and sustainable development.
In Yemen, autism is not fully understood or widely known, and there is a lack of reliable data on children with autism spectrum disorders. Presented at the sixth Youth Leadership Programme (YLP6) organized by UNDP Yemen, “Taif” helps facilitate the early diagnosis of children with ASD.
Hamas Abouhatem, 27, from Yemen, thought ofabout an innovative, digitized approach to managing autism in Yemen to empower mothers with knowledge and equip them with the information they need to successfully address their children with autism spectrum disorders. She developed an Android mobile application called “Taif” that facilitates early diagnosis of children with ASD.
UNDP’s eMonitor+ is a suite of innovative digital tools leveraging AI to promote access to reliable information and reduce the impact of harmful content. eMonitor+ machine learning models are trained to map digital space and trends on various topics, such as misinformation, hate speech, and online violence against women, and marginalized groups, and provide a secure collaborative fact-checking environment for national partners. The platform is being deployed to support governance and elections by UNDP national partners, including governments, media, and civil society organizations in Lebanon, Libya, Tunisia, and other countries in the Arab region. eMonitor+ is also being utilized in Mozambique and Peru as an excellent example of vital South-South cooperation in promoting information integrity across the globe.
Digital for Sustainable Development
UNDP and the Government of Bahrain co-hosted a high-level side event at the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly to launch the "Digital for Sustainable Development" (D4SD) Partnership, a new, robust, and forward-thinking initiative that aims to promote and accelerate digital transformation across the Arab States region.
The founding members of the new partnership, including the Digital Cooperation Organization (DCO), the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), the Global System for Mobile Communications Association (GSMA), the Islamic Development Bank (IsDB), and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), issued a Call to Action, pledging unwavering commitment, individually and collectively, to take concrete steps to advance digitalization to help accelerate progress towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.
The collective action will mobilize and empower an equitable and inclusive digital ecosystem and develop a roadmap for digital cooperation on sustainable development.
Leading the digital transformation in the Arab region
Promoting digital transformation in the Arab region is a critical step towards achieving the SDGs by 2030. By showcasing best practices from countries such as Somalia, Libya, Egypt, and Syria, we have seen the importance of collaboration and knowledge sharing in promoting inclusive and responsible digital solutions.
To continue this journey, it is imperative that stakeholders and initiatives work together to improve digital collaboration and create an environment that promotes sustainable development. By harnessing the potential of digital transformation, we can drive the transition to a more resilient and sustainable future for the Arab States and beyond.
Stay tuned to the hashtag #Act4SDGsAR to learn how Arab countries are working to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030