If there is any question as to how integral information and communications technology (ICT) is to global development, the evidence is in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Seven of the indicators across four SDGs relate to digital capabilities. Beyond that, to capture the full scope of ICTs as an enabler of development, the Partnership for Measuring ICT for Development has identified another 26 ICT indicators covering 10 of the 17 SDGs. Further, the Digital Impact Alliance (DIAL) and International Telecommunication Union (ITU) developed the SDG Digital Investment Framework, designed as an introduction to how digital capabilities can advance specific SDGs.
COVID-19 has brought into stark relief the extent to which our lives are lived online—a digital world in which the private sector is leading and government too often is lagging. Those with access to digital technology have continued work and school from home and transformed their businesses into an online model. Those without access, have lost out on earnings, learning, and social connections. The pandemic has revealed a sharp digital divide within and between countries and communities. Some governments with advanced digital capabilities and strong political leadership have been able to innovate in response to the needs of their populations; others have been left struggling.
While there is a strong correlation between digital development and national income, as is demonstrated in Section 2 of this paper, national wealth is not sufficient. Political leadership and openness to innovation are equally, or even more, critical factors in contributing to digital development. For instance, several developing countries were able to respond effectively to the coronavirus by utilizing digital services to speed delivery of relief efforts. Take India, for example, a lower-middle-income country (LMIC). Within one week, the government was able to transfer $8 per month to 200 million vulnerable women through Aadhaar, its biometric-enabled digital identity system launched in 2009 and now covering 1.3 billion citizens. Sri Lanka, another LMIC, with an existing robust Health Management Information System, was able to adapt within two days an open source DHIS2 platform to create a system to register and track incoming travelers from areas of high risk of COVID-19.
More telling, Togo, a low-income country (LIC), used an existing Unstructured Supplemental Service Data (USSD)-based platform to collaborate with telecommunications companies to ensure mobile network compatibility. In 10 days, it built Novissi, a monthly digital cash transfer system that allows individuals to enroll and automatically receive payment via a mobile phone. Within a week of launch, nearly 450,000 beneficiaries received funds. The system is specifically structured to account for gender inequalities in the country.
In contrast, at the top of both the wealth and digital pyramids, the United States issued 169 million payments, amounting to $395 billion, through a lengthy piecemeal approach of direct deposits, paper checks, and pre-paid Visa card. By one calculation, government COVID-19 response programs have taken 51 days to commence distribution using electronic means, but 86 days using manual methods.
These examples illustrate the benefits of digital government service adoption in developing countries. With the right platforms, developing countries even have the potential to leapfrog some developed countries in government digital service provision. As the examples above demonstrate, countries that had spent the prior decade investing in digital infrastructure and skills had an easier time responding to the pandemic than those that did not. This COVID-19 wakeup should catalyze action: Transitioning emergency systems into full scale government service platforms and helping those without systems deploy open source digital public goods for a range of modern digital government services.