Statistics show that 821 million people were undernourished in 2017 and over half of schools in Sub-Saharan Africa lack access to the Internet. With 11 years remaining until 2030, the year most sustainable development goals (SDGs) targets have to be achieved, the international community needs to make a stronger push on the SDGs. Even though digital technology has gone a long way, an insufficient number of stakeholders consider it key to the implementation of the 2030 Agenda.
In order to review the progress and challenges of the SDGs, the seventh edition of the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF), convened by the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), was held from 9 to 18 July at the United Nations Headquarters in New York.
The two-week event, with the theme of ‘Empowering people and ensuring inclusiveness and equality’, reviewed the following SDGs:
Nine sessions (see the list below) were dedicated to digital transformation and the SDGs where issues such as data, artificial intelligence (AI), and automation featured in the discussion.
Among the 100+ statements delivered by state officials during the ministerial meetings of the High-Level Political Forum and Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs),53 made a reference to technology, including its role in attaining the 2030 Agenda.
The visualisation below gathers all the statements by countries. Hover over the map to read the technology-related statements.
On average, each delivered statement was around 800 words long, out of which an estimate of 7.5% was dedicated to technology-related issues. It is worth mentioning that more reference was made to technology in statements given during the Ministerial meetings (7.8%) in comparison to VNRs (5.6%).
Economy and trade in the digital context was the most popular theme in the delivered statements (28.3%), followed by capacity development, and digital divide with a slightly lower frequency.
The statements of a number of developing countries and small island states stood out.To illustrate, nearly half of the Albanian statement was dedicated to technology (45.8%) where they tackled issues such as digital divide, education and digital skills, as well as access to ICTs. 19.2% of the Kenyan statement was used to stress the importance of science, technology and innovation (STI) in achieving the SDGs whereas Maldives (14.5%) focused mostly on the role of data in accelerating action and monitoring progress on sustainable development. On the other hand, Fiji (16.3%) perceived digitalisation as crucial for economic growth.
The above data analysis, therefore, shows that very little attention is given to the relationship between the SDGs and digital technology which, if developed and used adequately, could accelerate development (for more information, see below How digital technologies can accelerate each SDG).
Data featured highly in discussions at the HLPF. Government officials stressed the importance of capacity building in data-related fields given that data is essential for assessment and monitoring of SDGs' implementation.
Developing countries, in particular, see challenges in data collection as one of the important setbacks in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda and call for reliable data to make more informed policy decisions.
In order to tackle this issue, a number of countries have already taken measures. For instance, a Lao government official referred to a data mapping exercise that the country performed on all localised SDGs indicators. The exercise aimed to allocate resources to support data mining processes more effectively. Similarly, Ghana is addressing the current data challenges through a data roadmap consisting of the following priority areas of action:
The Sustainable Development Goals Report 2019, launched on the first day of the HLPF, emphasises the importance of investing in data in order to achieve the 17 SDGs. The data-backed report observes that the ‘lack of accurate and timely data on many marginalised groups and individuals makes them ‘invisible’ and exacerbates their vulnerability’. Moreover, technology was specifically addressed under the review of SDG 9 (Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure).
The report highlights the progress on mobile connectivity: ‘90% of people live within the range of a 3G or higher quality mobile network’. However, affordability still remains a barrier to accessing cellular networks, thus resulting in the persisting digital divides.
According to the report, high-tech manufacturing i.e. the production of computers, TVs, and other communication devices is also increasing worldwide except in Sub-Saharan Africa where it has actually decreased by 3.1% in comparison to the results from 2000.
The report acknowledges that digital transformation ‘can drive progress across all 17 SDGs’.There are several ways in which this can be done. One of them is by looking at each SDG and its respective targets.
For instance, significant progress on SDG 3 (Good Health and Wellbeing) - and in particular, its target 3.8 (achieving universal health coverage) - can be made through online platforms that can facilitate and manage access to healthcare services.
The visualisation below provides a comprehensive overview of how technology can help achieve the SDGs and each target.
For an interactive version of the chart, please, clik on the image.
Official meeting on technology-related issues:
Side events on technology-related issues: