Developing countries have much to win or lose from the digital revolution and must immediately take charge of their own digital futures, as noted by the Pathways for Prosperity Commission while launching a new Digital Manifesto to help poorer countries achieve technological transformation in Nairobi.
The Digital Manifesto outlines 10 steps that can put countries ‘firmly in the driving seat’ in determining their future digital pathways. It is drawn from the Commission’s new and final report, The Digital Roadmap: How developing countries can get ahead.
From the tech start-ups of Bangalore, to government ministries in Ethiopia, to nomadic farmers in Mongolia, the Commission has spent two years gathering a rich body of evidence to show how lower-income countries can harness new technologies to deliver development for all citizens, not just the privileged few. This year, half the world is online for the first time ever. The challenge is to ensure that the growing digital trajectories are a force for inclusive development.
“Digital technologies offer powerful tools to grow businesses and nations alike, enabling entrepreneurs access to markets and giving governments innovative ways to deliver better services,” said Strive Masiyiwa, Pathways Commission Co-Chair and founder of pan-African telecommunications, technology and renewable energy group, Econet. Adding; “However, without visionary policy planning and 21st century skills training for virtually everyone, these same technologies over time could lead to job losses and further financial exclusion of the poorest in our societies.”
Failure to switch on economies for the digital age will risk widening the gap between rich and poor countries, as well as fueling inequalities within them, the Commission’s report says, leaving millions of marginalised people, including the poorest, rural communities and women, even further behind. Some of these trends are daunting. Africa’s labour force will grow by 285 million people from 2010 to 2030 – more than all the manufacturing jobs in China and India. Ensuring there will be opportunities for these people will be key.
Melinda Gates, Co-Chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Pathways Commission said: ‘Today, huge gender gaps in digital access are the norm in developing countries. If we invest in closing those gaps, women and girls can start to meet their untapped potential, building economies that are not only more equal but also more dynamic and ultimately more prosperous.’
Sri Mulyani Indrawati, Indonesia’s Finance Minister and co-chair of the Pathways Commission, said: “This is a critical moment in history and the stakes for developing countries could not be higher. Governments and societies cannot sit back passively and watch the digital revolution happening around them – they must pick up the tools that are available and become authors of their own digital destinies. Getting digitally ready will take vision, collaboration and deliberate planning to ensure everyone benefits.”
One of the Commission’s key recommendations is that countries craft a ‘national digital compact’. It involves bringing together representatives of all parts of government, civil society and the private sector to create and agree the vision and manage the trade-offs inherent in national digital transformation. This agreement will help countries to navigate the profound impacts technologies are having on their societies and economies. From here, countries can develop inclusive digital strategies – futures where everyone gains
To support countries developing their digital strategies, the Commission has developed a Digital Economy Toolkit. It has piloted the kit with the governments of Ethiopia, South Africa and Mongolia using it as a foundation for their national digital strategies. All three countries are concerned about inequality and future employment, making discussions of new digital pathways all the more urgent.
“Just as there is no one-size-fits-all blueprint for digital development, so there is no substitute for getting government to lead conversations with business and civil society around a table and collectively agreeing the digital vision for their country,” said Benno Ndulu, academic Director at the Pathways Commission and former Governor of Tanzania’s Central Bank. “We can’t just import global tech policies wholesale – we need to ensure laws and regulations work for our national contexts and keep up with the rapid speed of change.”
The digital divide is not just about poor infrastructure, the Pathways Commission said, with 80 percent of people in developing countries living under a cellular internet signal but only 30 per cent ever having used the internet due to cost and other barriers. Governments must therefore design digital strategies with the poorest and most marginalised front of mind.
More broadly, they should put people at the heart of their digital futures, empowering them with digital skills, giving them access to digital platforms to make government more accountable, ensuring their data is secure and providing a social safety net for those whose livelihoods are disrupted by technological change.
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