Will digital be a force for good? It’s up to us to decide

Posted June 1, 2021

Children learn computer skills as part of a project against the radicalization of young people and promotion of citizenship in Mauritania.

UNDP/Freya Morales

We live in an age of accelerating digital change and UNDP is evolving to meet the challenges of our time. As an organization we have made significant progress, strengthening our ability to harness digital across the different areas of our work. However, as we better understand the accelerating pace of change, it is clear that digital is revolutionizing the entire context in which development is taking place. While digital can clearly serve as an enabler of critical services and support human development, it also brings many of its own challenges that directly affect human development. UNDP needs to understand not only the opportunities but also the challenges and risks that they pose as we seek to promote a vision of supportive and inclusive digital societies.

One of the challenges is that those who are still not connected risk falling further behind as they are increasingly excluded from work opportunities, education, and public services. More than three and a half billion people, mostly in the developing world, still have no meaningful internet access due to lack of network coverage, the high cost of service, poor digital literacy, or lack of accessible content. The good news is that bridging the digital divide has proven developmental benefits. UNDP can build on its experience in supporting the shift to digital in countries like Bangladesh and others to expand its work in this area.

Whilst the benefits of connectivity are relatively clear cut, the expansion of digital platforms and internet connectivity have heralded a kaleidoscope of other challenges, such as misinformation, rogue algorithms, and the erosion of individual privacy. We also know that digital technology can exacerbate existing inequalities if we do not implement appropriate risk mitigation measures. UNDP is already working with governments to manage these risks. In Sri Lanka, UNDP developed the Engage to Disengage programme, which helps young people use media to engage with their communities in healthy, inclusive ways.

In the coming years, we expect to work with more than 100 government partners, civil society, and others to drive inclusive digital transformation that tackles these kinds of issues, and makes use of digital wherever appropriate to achieve development priorities. This means engaging with our partners with a ‘whole of society’ approach to digital transformation, and then supporting the implementation of that vision across all sectors and levels of society. It is critical that we collaborate closely with other stakeholders in digital development, including other UN agencies, International Financial Institutions, and the private sector. Building upon our experience working with country level partners around the world, we have an opportunity to drive a global vision of positive and inclusive digital societies. Working in harmony with other development partners, academic institutions, and the technology industry we can develop shared norms for development in a digital age which will move the global agenda in a more inclusive, equitable, and ethical direction.

For sure, this is a lot to accomplish. Fortunately, we have a lot to build on. UNDP’s broad mandate and deep local expertise makes us uniquely positioned to offer governments a holistic approach to digital issues. In many cases our teams at global, regional, and country level are already working hard on these issues and we are gaining critical experience with each day that passes.

We also know that we can and must do more. This means that we need to build our capacity in new areas of work, but also ensuring that digital considerations is integrated across UNDP’s six signature solutions and every thematic area in the organization. As we look to the future, we must be ambitious in our efforts to tackle the emergent digital challenges of our age. In every area of our work, we must harness digital to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and beyond.

As digital technology continues to reshape our world, UNDP can and must be a cornerstone in the effort to harness digital transformation to enable flourishing inclusive and ethical digital societies around the world.