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A new Data for Development Compact: A view from the United Nations panel on Digital Co-operation 2020

ashrafpatelAs the world moves closer to achieving the United Nations (UN) 2030 Agenda deadline for the collective Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s), data - in myriad forms - could provide a boost to help reduce poverty, reach those in need, enable education, and even quell conflict. Over the past two decades, the United Nations has been at the forefront of advocating the ICT for Development agenda. From the early days of the original Millennium Development Goals (MDG’s) 2015 agenda, it contained a vision of ICT’s as a tool for development; the UN also sponsored the World Summit on Information Society (WSIS) in Geneva (2003) and Tunis ( 2005)  whose multidimensional approach was largely welcomed.

Sadly, the last several years has seen the dark side of data with tech being used and misused by myriad stakeholders from Big tech monetization of data and privacy; states conducting cyberwarfare and hate groups mobilising on the net. The COVID-19 global pandemic crisis has again put the spotlight on the need for a ‘public good development’ approach as a way of dealing with multiple crises – such as the global Vaccine, as well as the Internet to service developmental priorities. Even the internet – which was once held as the great promise to unite humanity and foster global communication, sharing of knowledge and learnings of cultures is now in the era of the ‘ splinternet’ suggesting that the net – far from being a tool for global understanding and co-operation is used for nefarious activities and  dividing communities and societies.

Sadly too, the multilateral world order is now fracturing under the elephantine pressure of narrow nativist nationalism in nations such as the US. In this milieu and with the COVID-19 pandemic crisis, the UN is again leading the call for international co-operation in the provision of public goods - from Covid vaccine development to education, to the internet for all. The world is shifting from analog to digital faster than ever before, further exposing us to the vast promise and peril of new technologies. While the digital era has brought society many incredible benefits, we also face many challenges such as growing digital divides, cyber threats, and human rights violations online.

In the wake of the global pandemic, the importance of digital skills has never been so evident, nor so urgent. As those lucky enough to enjoy fast connectivity took refuge from the global health emergency by moving to a virtual environment to support economic continuity, education and interpersonal contact, those lacking access to digital networks and skills have been left even further behind. In countries such as South Africa the stark divide between those in private schools and those in poor, working class communities has seen new forms of educational divisions, with more forms of digital and real exclusion.

The new UN High Level Panel on Digital Co-operation released in June 2020 is thus timely and relevant. Convened by the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres in 2018 and including governments, academia, business and civil society, the final report lays out a roadmap in which all stakeholders play a role in advancing a safer, more equitable digital world, one which will lead to a brighter and more prosperous future for all, hopefully.

  • Covid-19 and digital: some delegations underlined the acceleration of the use of and access to information communication technologies (ICTs) as a result of the pandemic, while others warned about associated negative effects such as propaganda and online hate speech.
  • Non-traditional security threats: an increase of cyber-attacks especially against healthcare institutions was observed during the pandemic. A trusted, open and inclusive cyberspace with proper international regulations is a priority.
  • Digital divide: the current situation has exacerbated the digital divide, especially in developing countries. Strategies to better the skills of the population to face the future are needed.
  • Digitalisation of public services: the digital transformation of the public sector is noteworthy. Technologies and platforms enabled administrations to continue their activity

The 8 Action Plans for Digital Co-operation:

  1. Global Connectivity: Achieving universal connectivity by 2030: Half of the world’s population currently does not have access to the Internet. By 2030, every person should have safe and affordable access to the Internet, including meaningful use of digitally enabled services in line with the Sustainable Development Goals.
  2. Promoting Digital Public Goods to create a more equitable world: We must undertake a concerted global effort to encourage and invest in the creation of digital public goods: open source software, open data, open AI models, open standards and open content. These digital public goods should  adhere to privacy and other applicable laws and best practices, do no harm, and help attain the SDGs.
  3. Digital Inclusion for the most vulnerable: Digital divides reflect and amplify existing social, cultural and economic inequalities. The gender gap in global Internet use is a stark example – in two out of every three countries, more men use the Internet than women. Similar challenges affect migrants, refugees, internally displaced persons, older persons, young people, children, persons with disabilities, rural populations, and indigenous peoples. We must close these gaps through better metrics, data collection, and coordination of initiatives.
  4. Digital Capacity Building: Many countries and citizens are deprived of capacities and skills crucial to the digital era and to attaining the SDGs. Digital capacity building must be more needs-driven and tailored to individual and national circumstances, and better coordinated globally.
  5. Digital Human Rights: Digital technologies provide new means to exercise human rights, but they are too often used to violate human rights. Regulatory frameworks and legislation on the development and use of digital technologies should have human rights at their centre. Data protection, digital ID, the use of surveillance technologies, online harassment and content governance are of particular concern.
  6. Artificial Intelligence (AI) – supporting global co-operation for AI: AI brings enormous benefits to the digital era, but it can also significantly compromise the safety and agency of users worldwide.  Enhanced multi-stakeholder efforts on global AI cooperation are needed to help build global capacity for the development and use of AI in a manner that is trustworthy, human rights-based, tacking algorithm racism, safe and sustainable, and promotes peace.
  1. Digital Trust and Security: The digital technologies that underpin core societal functions and infrastructure, including supporting access to food, water, housing, energy, health care and transportation, need to be safeguarded. A broad and overarching statement outlining common elements of an understanding on digital trust and security, endorsed by all Member States, could help to shape a shared vision for digital cooperation based on global values.
  2. Global Digital Co-operation – building a more effective architecture for Governance: There are significant gaps in global digital cooperation, and digital technology issues are too often low on political agendas. Even where there has been cooperation, it is frequently fragmented and lacks tangible outcomes or sound follow-up processes. As a starting point, the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) must be strengthened, in order to make it more responsive and relevant to current digital issues, especially for nations in the Global South who have low impact on the real discussions on the future of the net.

Since 2016, South Africans have been complaining about the high price of data through the #DataMustFall social media banner, and both the Competition Commission and ICASA initiated inquiries into data pricing, as we have amongst the highest data costs in the world, in spite of programs such as SA Digital Connect, launched in 2015.

The release of high-frequency spectrum by March 2021 and the completion of digital migration will reduce data costs for firms and households, and will presumably promote transformation, reduce costs and increase access. But is it the correct sequence if major infrastructure investment and national broadband programs are sub-optimal? Furthermore, do we have an effective national digital skills program that is required to propel us into the new digital economy and so called 4IR?  As South Africa is seen to be a ‘ technology leader’ on the African continent, and leading the African Union (AU) in 2020 , it requires agile leadership  and  more appropriate models – to be learnt from nations in the Global South so that the country collectively learns to meet  its  UN SDG obligations.

Ashraf Patel is the digital data and economy associate at the IGD and is a graduate on the Masters in Management (MM)   Public Policy and Regulation Management (ICTfrom the Graduate School of Public and Development Management (P&DM), University of Witwatersrand, South Africa. 

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