Reaching the SDGs: New Alliances in Digital Development

By Kate Wilson, CEO, Digital Impact Alliance, United Nations Foundation

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) call on all of us to work as partners to end extreme poverty, fight inequality, and address climate change. Digital technologies enable government and citizen action towards these global goals. The rising ubiquity of mobile phones, the increased global use of communication and social media applications such as WhatsApp and Facebook, and the ability to rapidly analyze and use disparate data sets from multiple sources are accelerating governments’ and citizens’ ability to make better, more informed decisions. However, in order to reap the large scale benefits of these breakthroughs, we must all share equally in the digital economy.

The benefits of digital innovations are still not equally shared, particularly in emerging markets. As the World Development Report 2016: Digital Dividends illustrates, only 15% of people can afford access to broadband Internet, nearly 60% of the world’s population has no access to the Internet, and despite astronomical growth in mobile phone penetration, roughly two billion people still do not own a mobile phone. The world’s poorest citizens often struggle to benefit from relevant, life-enhancing health, education and financial and other services available through these channels.

Why is there still such a divide between digital haves and have nots? The challenges are complex, rooted in gaps in understanding of user needs, limited examples of sustainable business models, and a lack of updated national regulatory frameworks. Given this uncertainty, the global tech industry largely has optimized technology platforms and service applications to meet the needs of higher-income consumers. However, some companies are recognizing the opportunities. Ericsson, Microsoft, Google and Tableau are but a few companies working with governments and the development sector to understand and adapt their platforms. Start-ups from South Africa to India to China are developing new software and hardware platforms designed for consumers at the base of the pyramid.

It’s still early days for these companies, governments and international development actors, and strong partnership models are required if we are to increase digital inclusion in emerging markets and reduce the fragmentation that has marked most global development technology efforts. In markets around the world, mobile operators, app developers, government ministries, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), donor institutions and many others face similar business, technical and legal challenges. Collaboration to develop and deliver on shared solutions — such as health service delivery, digital payments and digital tools for registering rural voters — is needed to reach the SDGs.

Carlos Slim Helu, Chairman and CEO of Mexico telecommunications giant Telmex and America Movil once said, “In this new wave of technology, you can't do it all yourself, you have to form alliances.” In that spirit, a new organization has set its sights on enabling the global community to work more effectively together to overcome the digital divide. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) and the United Nations Foundation have joined together to form a new partnership to address the barriers creating fragmentation in the sector.

The Digital Impact Alliance, or DIAL, is an innovative partnership to accelerate the collective efforts of government, industry and development organizations to realize the vision of a more inclusive digital economy for the underserved in emerging markets.

DIAL’s partnership with its funding partners reflects a new model. In addition to contributing to DIAL’s shared funding pool, our donors wear multiple hats. USAID and the other donors will lend technical expertise in areas such as digital financial services, digital agriculture and use of mobile data for decision making. They will help form additional partnerships to drive the goal of an inclusive digital economy. As the sector’s efforts generate stronger insights about what works, we’ll enlist our donors to advocate for adoption of proven practices within donor agencies, NGOs and government ministries. For example, our donors will be our partners helping to promote adoption of the tools and practices reflected in the Principles for Digital Development throughout their own agencies.

Most important, however, is DIAL’s partnership with national governments and the many NGOs, technology providers and other actors in the sector. Our role is to connect the community across sectors and geographies, amplify what is working, and support the development of viable business models, more robust policy frameworks, more cost-effective approaches for creating user-centric products and services, and improved technology standards and tools that enable everyone to benefit from the power of digital.

Working together, DIAL, its partners and the global community can help the world overcome the digital divide in order to reach the SDGs by 2030.

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Kate Wilson is the CEO of the Digital Impact Alliance. She joins DIAL from PATH, the Seattle-based international health organization driving transformative innovation to save lives. She previously served as PATH’s Director, Digital Health Solutions, a group she co-founded in 2009 based on a belief that information and communication technology (ICT) was the next essential health tool that could change decades-long paradigms of poor health services delivery in the developing world.