Digital is changing development. UNDP is changing too.

Posted On April 26, 2021

Illustration: jenny on the moon/


Digital technology will be the fundamental driver of change this century, reshaping economies, government, and civil society – and impacting every area of our work, often in unexpected ways.

Recognizing this, UNDP launched our first organization-wide digital strategy in 2019. At the time we didn’t appreciate how prescient this was. In 2020, however, the COVID-19 pandemic demanded a seismic shift in how we work and support our development partners. The digital strategy became our roadmap.

Since the start of the pandemic, UNDP has worked with over 60 partner governments to deploy critical technologies such as video conferencing services and hardware supplies as they moved their critical services online. Across UNDP’s global network of Country Offices, we saw over 250 digitally enabled responses to COVID-19 emerge at the same time. For example, UNDP Mongolia developed a digital case management system for social workers to better assist marginalized people and people with disabilities whose lives and livelihoods were disrupted by COVID-19. In the Philippines, UNDP helped four government ministries integrate their data systems, improving their overall response to the pandemic. In Uganda, UNDP’s Country Office partnered with African e-commerce company Jumia to help informal market vendors - especially women, young people, or people with disabilities - find new customers online. These are just small selection of the kinds of responses we saw; the full list can be found here.

At the same time, UNDP itself was rapidly changing, leveraging digital technology to improve our internal processes and workflows. UNDP is the first organization in the UN system to adopt a ‘Digital by Default’ approach to embedding digital across our programming at the country and HQ levels. Thousands of staff members have taken digital awareness training. We initiated several digital lighthouse initiatives and ‘sprint’ projects to highlight and accelerate transformative internal digital initiatives; three have been completed while another six remain underway. One of these platforms, SparkBlue, has provided over 5,000 users across 143 locations with cutting-edge digital planning and collaboration tools.

UNDP is also investing in our own ability to harness data in support of development goals. In response to the COVID-19 crisis, we launched a new COVID-19 Data Futures Platform that pulls together data from across the UN system along with nonprofit partners, academia, development partners, and countries around the world, and provides tools and analysis for insights into different development challenges. While the platform was launched specifically in response to the pandemic, it is now in the process of being expanded across all areas of our work. We also created and approved a corporate data strategy and implemented a cutting edge, integrated data architecture.

In the midst of digital acceleration from the COVID-19 pandemic, several fundamental insights have emerged which will help us chart our digital journey.

First, it is clear that bridging the digital divide is increasingly urgent. As the COVID-19 pandemic forced work, education, and play online, those who are excluded are in danger of falling further behind. We must go beyond counting network connections towards a broader conception of ‘meaningful use’. This means ensuring that digital services that are affordable, accessible and relevant for all, and that people have the skills to make use of them.

The second, and related, observation is that we must ensure we are intentionally inclusive in our use of digital. A rapid shift to online services has the potential to exacerbate existing inequalities without proper design focused on the user, including those in marginalized communities. As a human development organization, UNDP has a responsibility to ensure this happens.

Finally, there are a number of increasingly urgent risks emerging from digital transformation such as misinformation, cybersecurity and erosion of privacy. Societies making a rapid shift to digital need to not only be aware of these risks but also have access to support in taking action to mitigate them. Above all, it is critical that we do not view digital tools as a benign panacea to the world’s entrenched problems. Rather, we must adopt a clear-eyed perspective on what digital can do, as well as the pitfalls we must avoid.

The roll call of urgent digital challenges continues to grow. We are witnessing growing demand from our government partners to address these challenges while also making the most of the potential of digital technologies. It is clear now more than ever that digital has become a fundamental part of the development paradigm. UNDP must continue to both pursue our own digital transformation as well as support our partners in building inclusive and ethical digital societies. I believe this is not a choice; it is an imperative.