Climate change, global poverty, and gender inequality are some of the biggest, most intractable problems in the world today. And they affect people unequally, with those who are already vulnerable being hit the worst. But the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is betting that digital technologies can play a central role in addressing these and other challenges.
“Digital is the most significant lever we have to move the needle,” says Robert Opp, chief digital officer at UNDP.1
This doesn’t mean that digital tools will be a panacea for all the world’s problems. Far from it. Opp says that things such as artificial intelligence (AI), social media, data-aggregation technologies, virtual reality, and blockchain are double-edged swords. Implemented carelessly and without proper foundations, they will at best be distractions and at worst cause active harm. Opp cited the rise of disinformation on social media as an example. But when technology ecosystems are developed in thoughtful ways, they can bring new economic as well as environment, social, and governance opportunities.
For example, in 2019, UNDP funded a blockchain-backed programme to help cocoa growers in Ecuador make more money from their crops. When consumers buy chocolate bars that are part of the programme—which are sold as The Other Bar—they receive a digital token that has real cash value, which they can then use to buy a cocoa tree for a farmer or to receive a discount on their next purchase.
UNDP also funds projects aimed at tackling the problem of online misinformation. It recently piloted a tool called iVerify in the 2021 elections in Zambia that uses machine learning to identify hate speech in posts before sending suspect articles to human fact-checkers for further review.
These are just a few examples of digital projects UNDP has underway, which Opp says are largely aimed at bridging the digital divide. There are currently 2.9 billion people in the world who are not connected to the internet—96% of those in developing countries2—which locks them out of all the economic and social opportunities that come from digital technologies.
Solving this higher-level problem is a complicated affair because you can’t just give people smartphones and expect results. Opp says the governmental partners that would act as service providers in underserved areas may not be prepared to be effective data stewards. Many countries lack regulations that would protect people online. And in many places, there is no productive online economy, which means many people are not able to do much beyond using social media or watching videos.
“If we want to see sustainable development around the world, we need to make available activities within a productive ecosystem,” Opp says. “When you look deeper at the digital divide, it gets into things like affordability, the skills required to be able to use the digital platforms, and the availability of productive services.”
Developing this ecosystem is a major challenge for governments that haven’t yet invested in digital technologies at the national level. Right now, digital ecosystems are fragmented in many countries. Governments often have implemented a handful of legacy tools. These tools generally won’t scale, but they will have to be reconciled with any new technology.
At the same time, new technology brings new risks, Opp says. AI, for example, often entails mining potentially sensitive data from individuals and using that information to make decisions for people, which can undermine people’s privacy and sense of agency. Opp believes that nations need to think about what digital human rights look like in this new world, something few have done.
Yet, while the challenges are steep, the opportunities are substantial. Digital technologies have been the engine for economic growth for much of the 21st century. Helping developing nations tap into that power could play a role in bringing millions of people out of poverty.
“Our role here is to leave no one behind,” Opp says. “We need to ensure people are at the center as we look at the nature of the digital divide.”
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