NEW YORK — The 2019 United Nations General Assembly saw the launch of a number of data-focused initiatives to track progress on — and accelerate progress toward — achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.
For example, Facebook held a closed-door roundtable on ways to use its data to drive progress on the SDGs, beginning with gender data. The U.N. and several private sector players launched Data For Now, an effort to help governments use satellite imagery and mobile phone data to better understand a range of development challenges. And the Rockefeller Foundation launched a new initiative to ensure frontline health workers have access to data science tools such as predictive analytics, artificial intelligence, and machine learning.
Despite the many ways technology can support the 2030 agenda, for some countries, the digital tools that gain attention during Global Goals Week still seem out of reach, due to barriers including infrastructure and affordability. On Tuesday, new research from the Alliance for Affordable Internet revealed that despite a drop in data costs across Africa, the cost of mobile broadband is still prohibitively high, with 1 GB of data costing 7.1% of average monthly income.
But several experts tell Devex there are already ways the global development community can work to ensure that emerging technologies — which have the potential to transform the way development is done — are deployed rapidly, globally, and responsibly.
The push for universal health coverage, for example, has led to a lot of excitement around the role that technology can play, but many potential solutions run into challenges when it comes to scale, interoperability, and sustainability.
“People’s lives are integrated and whole, and not segmented into diseases,” said Stefan Germann, CEO of Fondation Botnar.
He talked about the need for a move from pilots toward affordable and sustainable business models that fit within “a systems lens of: How do we tackle universal health coverage in a digital age?”
With just 10 years left to achieve the SDGs, a number of conversations organized during Global Goals Week focused on this question of how to move from pilots to scale, not only in health but across sectors. For example, the World Economic Forum previewed a new platform called Accelerating Sustainable Development in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, known as 4IR for SDGs, which will launch at its annual meeting in Davos. From 2020 to 2022, it aims to catalyze action by the public and private sector, develop partnerships around the challenges that prevent the scale-up of technology for the SDGs, and work with governments to test and scale models that might be replicated elsewhere.
The Overseas Development Institute is partnering with WEF on the new initiative, focusing on national partnerships to help governments ensure that every sector of society benefits from this technology transformation.
Sara Pantuliano, acting executive director of ODI, called for the global development community to be a more active partner working with governments to develop data governance principles that support innovation and protect citizens.
“Regulation will be critical in determining whether digitalization will be a barrier or enabler for development,” she told Devex.
In the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the value for developing countries will not come from production, said Stefan Dercon, academic director of the Pathways for Prosperity Commission, an initiative housed at Oxford University’s Blavatnik School of Government that is researching how to turn the risks of technological change into opportunities for the poorest.
Moving forward, value will come from connectivity, he said, and the question is how to help countries become digitally ready.
One of the challenges facing low- and middle-income countries is how to invest in digital infrastructure at the rate that is needed to bring their citizens online. Ensuring digital access globally will require $1 trillion in investment by 2040, WEF representatives explained during a workshop on the topic.
To ensure that the digital revolution does not leave the poorest behind, these technological advances have to make it to hard-to-reach places, said Neal Keny-Guyer, CEO of Mercy Corps.
“There’s just not the return on investment in many places to go the last mile and reach the most vulnerable,” he told Devex. “We are seeing some examples, but when you total all the resources up, it’s not at the scale needed for real progress.”
Blended finance can help to lower the risk for companies that might not otherwise enter these markets, making the terms acceptable — something that is below market but somewhere above zero.
Keny-Guyer mentioned, for example, the role that the U.K. Department for International Development played in the rollout of M-Pesa — the mobile payment system widely credited for transforming banking in Africa — and said that NGOs like Mercy Corps can also help to lower the risk with their knowledge and relationships in these markets.
Despite all the excitement around the potential of technology for the SDGs, some warned that focusing on emerging technology might distract from the very real needs and possibilities that exist today.
“As we think about technology, we should not think so much into the future,” mPharma co-founder and CEO Gregory Rockson, who is working to fix drug supply chains in Africa, said at a high-level dialogue organized by the United Nations Development Programme. “We have to conceptualize what the future will look like … But many people cannot afford to wait, and we have to think about how we can fix their problems today.”