Technological change raises the stakes for action to leave no one behind

December 10, 2018


The 2030 Agenda presents a historic opportunity to set the world on track to a sustainable future. In twelve years’ time, a litmus test for its success will be: have we made good on the promise to ‘leave no one behind’? The answer will depend, in some measure, on our responses to the fourth industrial revolution.

The speed and ubiquity of technological change offers unparalleled opportunities for sustainable development, but it also comes with the risk of rising inequalities within and between countries. It is up to policy makers to leverage this transformation for good, and to mitigate their risks.

Artificial intelligence can improve the quality and reach of health care with half of the world’s population still not having access to essential health services. Digital technologies can boost agricultural productivity. Satellite imagery can help combat deforestation. Big data analytics can identify needs and help track progress in real time. Drones can deliver essential supplies. And digital finance can enable new models to deliver basic services.

Estimates suggest that 133 million new jobs may emerge in the shake up between humans and machines by 2022. However, at the same time, 75 million jobs may be displaced. Artificial intelligence could add as much as USD 16 trillion to the global economy by 2030. But 70% of the gains are expected to accrue in North America and the People’s Republic of China alone.

Many countries do not have the means nor infrastructure to take advantage of technological developments. Hence, the risk is a “great divergence”, limiting the scope for structural transformation in countries left behind. Development that relies on traditional industrialisation may no longer be adequate, as manufacturing continues to lose the potential to absorb workers from agriculture or informal occupations.

Presently, one billion people worldwide lack necessary digital literacy and skills. Less than half the world’s population use the Internet. And the gender gap is clear: globally, 200 million fewer women are online than men.

Thus, harnessing the opportunities of technological change to achieve the SDGs for all requires a profound and urgent shift of gear. We need a new breed of policy responses and business decisions that is guided by the commitment to end extreme poverty, curb inequalities, confront discrimination and fast-track progress for the furthest behind.

UNDP, for example, offers a framework for governments and stakeholders to analyse how people are left behind through five factors: discrimination, poor governance, shocks and fragility, their socio-economic status, and where they live. Policy makers should take action to examine the disadvantages people face across these five key factors; empower marginalised and poor communities to participate meaningfully in decision-making; and enact policies that confront the root causes of inequity and deprivation and unlock human potential to adapt creatively to new realities, including those that come with technological change.

Though the broad trends of the fourth industrial revolution are clear, nobody knows the exact extent of their impact. We therefore need to be wary of canned and precooked policy recommendations. UNDP is eager to work with countries, firms and others to identify customised pathways – to help ensure that the benefits of technological advances reach those left furthest behind.

This blog was published on OECD-development matters