Blog: Making digital work for development

Met dank overgenomen van A. (Andrus) Ansip i, gepubliceerd op vrijdag 16 november 2018.

Later today, Brussels will play host to an important event for international development - or rather, an event that advances digital for development.

It brings together the winners of a series of seven hackathons in six countries: Belgium, Niger, Palestine, Morocco, Senegal and Uganda, as part of a worldwide movement called Hack The Goals organised by Enabel, the Belgian development agency.

Belgium’s minister of development cooperation and digital agenda, Alexander De Croo, will announce the overall winner tonight. One more among the many excellent initiatives that Belgium is taking to advance digital for development.

These hackathons are about more than technology.

They are about what technology can do for society and its people. Using technology in new ways to solve everyday problems, to improve people’s lives, to create a modern inclusive society for everyone.

When you think about what could be on that ‘to-do’ list, it gets quite long. And when you think of what could be done to help the developing world, digitalisation can clearly contribute a huge amount.

The point of today’s event is to make that happen: to develop ideas for technology to help us meet the 17 Strategic Development Goals (SDGs) that the United Nations set three years ago. Then, of course, to put them into practice so they make a real difference on the ground.

The SDGs aim to make sure that “nobody is left behind”, to achieve a better, more sustainable future for everyone, and to address challenges that we all face - poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, peace and justice.

I am a firm believer in using digital technologies and services to stimulate and catalyse sustainable development.

They have the power and potential to help businesses to grow, create economic opportunities, generate jobs and reduce social inequalities.

They can help us to meet each one of the UN’s goals - on healthcare, education, gender equality, jobs and economic growth, environment and climate change.

Events like today’s hackathon are a means to harness the power of technology with power, talent and imagination.

They bring digital experts and entrepreneurs together - to take an initial idea further, to develop a concept and transform it into a useful product.

It is a problem-solving process, one of co-creation and innovation, across a wide range of sectors. That is clear from the variety of design concepts presented by the hackathon teams -more details here - each one helping to speed up our achievement of the SDGs.

Digital: a key part of Europe’s development work

Around two years ago, Belgium and several other EU countries asked the European Commission a simple - but very relevant - question.

Why was the EU was not doing more to support the digital transformation of its partner countries?

In some African countries today, more people have access to a mobile phone than to clean water, a bank account or electricity. But until recently, the EU tended to invest in more traditional development sectors - like energy, agriculture, transport and health.

Less than 1.5% of the €32 billion invested in development assistance during the last 10 years went into projects related to digitalisation.

All that has changed with the Digital4Development strategy, which has made digital technology and services an integral part of EU development policy.

It will make digital the 'norm' across areas that really matter to people, supporting digital entrepreneurship and businesses of all sizes, including micro-startups. It will make sure that people have the right digital skills, as well as access to affordable broadband connectivity.

This should lead to more effective public services - health and education - and the use of civil registries based on eID to provide identification for everyone.

E-government techniques and tools already save billions by linking up public registries and getting rid of irregularities and discrepancies. That goes as much for developing countries as for developed ones.

Or take e-agriculture, which can raise the income of small farmers by up to 20%.

Mobile payment systems have opened up possibilities for financial inclusion as never before - particularly in Africa.

The rapid growth of M-Pesa has made it the most successful mobile-phone-based financial service in the developing world.

It is a great example of how digital technology can help people.

M-Pesa has lifted 2% of Kenyans out of extreme poverty and brought financial inclusion to the whole country - and beyond. It provided a much-needed service; it was useful, innovative and solved a problem that many people faced on a daily basis.

These are also the aims of today’s hackathon.

Our immediate development focus is Africa, where the digital divide is greatest. Africa is also home to an extraordinary entrepreneurial spirit.

Digitalisation is one of its biggest assets and opportunities for the future. Since 2016, the continent’s tech hubs have grown in number by more than 50%.

We recognise how important digital innovators are - both for Africa and the EU. There is a great deal that we can do to support each other.

Last year, in Abidjan, we organised a startup fair with over 100 young businesses taking part from both continents.

We are also looking at the idea of setting up an EU-Africa Startup programme to exchange digital entrepreneurs between African and European hubs.

This would allow African digital innovators to spend a few months in the EU, acquire appropriate skills and get access to large corporations and investors. The same conditions would apply for EU innovators keen to do business in Africa.

I said earlier that digitalisation can contribute a great deal to the developing world. But it can do so much more than that. It can help to improve the global economic landscape, promote sustainable development, reduce social divides and let people get ahead in life.

The EU’s Digital4Development strategy will be a powerful vehicle for making that happen. Congratulations to the hackathon teams for their impressive work. Another blog soon.