Written by Achim Steiner, Administrator, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)
Achim Steiner, Administrator, United Nations Development Programme. / Image supplied
The COVID-19 pandemic is a health crisis that spares no country. It is also a humanitarian crisis that particularly hits vulnerable people and countries severely and disproportionately.
The pandemic is causing a wave of devastating socio-economic consequences to break across the globe. An estimated 71 million people are expected to be pushed back into extreme poverty in 2020 – the first rise in global poverty since 1998.
It has also reversed decades of progress on gender equality and women’s rights. As a result, global human development – which can be measured as a combination of the world’s education, health and living standards – could decline this year for the first time in a generation.
To respond to these socio-economic consequences, we must fully leverage the digital information and communications technologies (ICTs) both strategically and decisively. Doing so will also help to accelerate progress on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Supporting the critical health response led by the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) mobilized and deployed immediate support to its 170 programme countries – providing vital supplies and equipment, technical support and funds.
As a large organization, we also had to quickly find ways to work together wherever the moment found us, including in the global and national epicenters of the pandemic. We repurposed funds and realigned teams according to shifting country needs.
Though many of our office doors around the world physically closed during the pandemic, our teams utilized technology to allow us to maintain full business continuity. Too many countries had minimal digital capacities when the pandemic hit – so we extended our own digital assets, technical and funding support, so governments could continue core functions and operations.
We helped countries to make effective use of technology and digital disruption to find rapid, much-needed solutions. That included the establishment of a facility to deploy $500 million to support innovative solutions around the world.
The success of robust response was built on the groundwork laid earlier. In our Strategic Plan 2018-2021, UNDP charted the course for #NextGenUNDP, a four-year transformation that includes leveraging of innovation and technology for development.
In early 2019, UNDP launched its Digital Strategy that serves as blueprint for digital transformation -- not only in how we operate, but also in how we address development challenges together with our partners. Guided by these strategies, and a dedicated team led by our Chief Digital Officer, we have been building our capacity, experimenting, and demonstrating results.
The investments and ongoing transformation enabled us to react quickly when COVID-19 hit. Building on UNDP’s global presence and strong field-based work, 75 of our Country Offices have launched nearly 200 digital responses to the COVID-19 crisis to date (highlighted examples here).
The UNDP Accelerator Labs that support 78 countries quickly developed and scaled-up innovative solutions -- from crowdsourcing in Ecuador to connect the most vulnerable people with food, goods and service providers to helping local governments in Nepal to monitor quarantine data.
We have worked to with local, regional and global partners to find tailored responses. In the Asia-Pacific region, we curated a list of open source digital solutions for disease monitoring; prevention and containment; and diagnosis and recovery.
In Africa, together with the European Investment Bank and Bearing Point, we identified the most effective digital solutions for fighting COVID-19 in Africa. With the UN Capital Development Fund (UNCDF), we strengthened open digital payment ecosystems and used mobile technologies to sustain the flow of remittances on which many communities and families rely.
In Uganda, we have worked with the leading e-commerce platform to support 1,200 local vendors in Uganda so they can continue their business during lockdown.
Indeed, during the pandemic, electronic cash payments made possible through digital finance proved to be lifesaving to those living in extreme poverty – from Chile to Thailand to Peru. As the UN Secretary-General’s Task Force on the Digital Financing of the SDGs points out in its recently released report entitled “People’s Money – Harnessing Digitalization to Finance a Sustainable Future” – we now have an historic opportunity to accelerate and expand the transformative impact of digitalization in financing the SDGs.
The pandemic has demonstrated how digital technologies can help to save lives -- and to fight the multidimensional impacts of the pandemic. The pandemic has also highlighted the cost of digital inequality.
As we deploy digital solutions, we need to remember the unequal state of digital access and digital literacy between and within countries. Indeed, look to the fact that online learning is almost impossible for 80 per cent of students in Africa due to lack of reliable internet and electricity access. In follow-up to the UN Secretary-General's Roadmap for Digital Cooperation, UNDP will continue to work closely with other UN agencies and governments to address the digital divide.
The phase-up ahead in the digital sphere will propel global efforts to build forward better from COVID-19 --with the SDGs remaining as our vital compass. To this end -- as the technical lead for the UN response to the socio-economic impact of the pandemic, UNDP has created a global COVID-19 Socio-Economic Recovery Data Insights platform to provide UNDP Country Offices, government decision-makers, and development practitioners a source of actionable, evidence-based insights to inform and advance recovery measures.
We need to redouble efforts and be more strategic and decisive in our actions, starting with intentional and sustained efforts to build the digital capacity of communities and countries lagging behind – and to ensure our digital investments build the digital ecosystem necessary to propel progress across all SDGs.In doing so, UNDP sees a serious need to leverage the collective intellectual capital and resources of the UN Group on the Information Society (UNGIS) to help avert the worst development crisis of this century.
We believe that the digital revolution can not only get countries back on a sustainable development pathway – but it can help countries to rapidly accelerate progress on a range of SDGs with less than ten years now left to achieve the 2030 Agenda.