Are countries ready for AI? How they can ensure ethical and responsible adoption

April 25, 2023

Artificial intelligence is already impacting our daily lives. UNDP is helping countries harness its benefits while mitigating the risks.

Image: Pixabay/Gerd Altmann

From ChatGPT to deepfakes, the topic of artificial intelligence (AI) has recently been making headlines. But beyond the buzz, there are real benefits it holds for advancing development priorities. Assessing countries’ AI readiness as one of the first steps towards adoption can help mitigate potential risks.

Artificial intelligence has the potential to benefit society in manifold ways. From using predictive analytics for disaster risk reduction to leveraging translation software to break down language barriers, AI is already impacting our daily lives. Yet, there are also negative implications, especially if proactive steps are not taken to ensure its responsible and ethical development and use. Through an AI Readiness Assessment, UNDP is making sure countries are equipped with valuable insights on design and implementation as they progress on their AI journey.  

The intersection between AI, data and people

AI-powered tools on the market are often touted based on their benefits – not their shortcomings. However, as seen with the latest example of ChatGPT, questions around responsible and ethical use become important. 

As highlighted in UNDP’s Digital Strategy, by design, technology must be centred on people. Digital transformation, including AI innovations, must be intentionally inclusive and rights-based to yield meaningful societal impact. For instance, whilst governments can leverage AI to improve public service delivery, consideration must be given to various layers of inclusion to ensure everyone can benefit equally.

"Humans and AI complement each other, which opens new opportunities for economic growth, production, health care, education, communication and transportation. More and more states and societies have AI and robotics regulations. Ethical and responsible use of technology for societal good is the default."
UNDP Digital Strategy 2022-2025

AI models rely on data to function. The quality of data that gets fed into a model determines the quality of its outputs – a classic representation of the ‘garbage in, garbage out’ axiom. In fact, the lack of quality data may even exacerbate bias and discrimination, particularly against vulnerable groups – pushing them further behind. Therefore, the degree of accuracy, relevance, and representativeness of a data set will impact the reliability and trustworthiness of results and insights the data is informing.

Digital public infrastructure, as an interoperable network of digital systems working together, is important for enabling timely and reliable data flows. This is pertinent, for instance, in responding to crises, when access to accurate and up-to-date information is needed to inform responsive programming and decision-making. Without such digital infrastructure, data flows may be disrupted, or the data available may be inaccurate or incomplete.

Supporting countries on their AI journey

There is strong interest amongst Member States in adopting AI-powered technologies to improve people’s lives by providing better services. But as the benefits and risks of these technologies are uncovered, the need for an ethical data and AI governance framework, improved capacities and knowledge has become equally relevant. 

The ‘Joint Facility’ is an initiative launched by UNDP and ITU to enhance governments’ digital capacity development, including in harnessing AI responsibly. UNDP is assisting countries such as Kenya, Mauritania, Moldova and Senegal in developing data governance frameworks to promote the use of data for evidence-based decision making. Also under development is a ‘Data to Policy Navigator’ that is being created by UNDP and the BMZ's Data4Policy Initiative. The Navigator is designed to provide decision-makers with the knowledge they need to integrate new data sources into policy-development processes. No advanced or prior knowledge of data science is needed.

UNDP, along with UNESCO and ITU, is also part of a United Nations Inter-Agency Working Group on AI, where the goal is to share collective learnings and best practices for other countries’ benefit. The group has developed recommendations on AI Ethical Standards, which include key aspects of international and human rights regulations around the right to privacy, fairness and non-discrimination, and data responsibility. 

Countries are at different stages of their AI journey, and careful assessment is needed to determine the appropriate digital infrastructure, governance and enabling community that may be required based on their unique needs and capabilities. To this end, UNDP, along with Oxford Insights, designed an AI Readiness Assessment as a first step that can help countries better understand their current level of preparedness and what they may need moving forward as they seek to adopt responsible, ethical and sustainable AI systems.

The AI Readiness Assessment 

The AI Readiness Assessment comprises a comprehensive set of tools that allow governments to get an overview of the AI landscape and assess their level of AI readiness across various sectors. The framework is focused on the dual roles of governments as 1) facilitators of technological advancement and 2) users of AI in the public sector. Critically, this assessment also prioritizes ethical considerations surrounding AI use.

The assessment highlights key elements necessary for the development and implementation of ethical AI, including policies, infrastructure and skills. These aspects are important for countries to consider as AI-powered technologies are implemented at population scale to help meet national priorities and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

Infographic showing table of considerations for AI readiness

The assessment employs a qualitative approach, utilizing surveys, key informant interviews, and workshops with civil servants to gain a more in-depth understanding of the AI ecosystem in a country. In doing so, it offers governments valuable insights and recommendations on how to go about effective and ethical implementation of AI regulatory approaches, including how AI ethics and values may be integrated into existing frameworks. Importantly, the assessment is a UN tool that is globally applicable and available for use, particularly for governments at any stage of their AI journey. 

Staying ahead

UNDP is committed to the ethical and responsible use of AI. To avoid shortcomings, an AI system should be built with transparency, fairness, responsibility and privacy by default. More AI-powered innovations are expected to emerge in years to come, and it is critical that we take proactive measures to ensure that their potential benefits and risks are evaluated through a people-centred approach. 

Like ChatGPT, efficiency of a digital tool does not necessarily mean its design and functions are ethical and responsible. Having a framework to thoroughly assess the benefits and risks is key. As these innovations evolve, so must governments’ mindset on AI. The AI Readiness Assessment is part of an effort to promote a proactive governance approach to digital development to ensure countries are informed, prepared and staying ahead when it comes to AI.

If your government is interested in learning more about the AI Readiness Assessment, please contact us at

The authors would like to thank Dwayne Carruthers, Communications Specialist, for his support.