In view of the ongoing global health crisis, for the first time ever since its establishment in 2013, the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) was held virtually.
Dedicated to the ‘Accelerated action and transformative pathways: realizing the decade of action and delivery for sustainable development’, the HLPF gathered representatives from UN member states to move the needle on poverty, food security, gender equality, climate change, and health in the decade of action.
A series of regular meetings and side events, held over the course of 2 weeks, were also an occasion for 47 countries (16 from Africa, 11 from Asia-Pacific, 11 from Europe, and 9 from Latin America and the Caribbean) to present voluntary national reviews (VNRs) and address progress on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (2030 Agenda).
Despite the fact that technology made it happen, the 2020 edition of the HLPF fell short on digital issues. This comes as somewhat of a surprise considering that digital technology is often regarded as the ‘invisible sustainable development goal (SDG)’ that seeps through all 17 goals.
The first six months of 2020 are possibly the most vivid illustration of this. As the world’s economic, political, social and health systems came to a test amid the outbreak of COVID-19, it was digital technology that helped facilitate ‘business continuity’ of humanity during the pandemic. From the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in early detection and big data insights, to online learning and remote work – you name it, tech was there. Nevertheless, this growing relevance of technology was not reflected in this year’s HLPF’s discussions.
To add to the element of surprise, less than a month ago, the UN secretary general published his Roadmap for Digital Cooperation where he stressed the role of new technologies in the attainment of SDGs, in particular in the context of digital public goods and digital capacity-building.
General debate shies away from the digital
This year’s event was marked by COVID-19 with more than a fourth of HLPF sessions being dedicated to the crisis. Digital technology was somewhat under the radar with 16 sessions, out of which 7 tackled data specifically.
From a total of 70 analysed government statements delivered at the general debate, only 23 made direct reference to digital technology. This rather low number represents an important decline in comparison to the 53 statements from last year that referred to digital innovation.
While statements from developed countries highlighted the important role played by digital transformation in response to COVID-19, citing online diagnosis, distance learning and e-solutions for continuity of public and private services, developing countries pointed towards the issue of the digital divide which has become even more pronounced during the crisis.
Speaking on behalf of the least developed countries (LDCs), Malawi underscored that only 19% of the population in LDCs has access to the Internet which, in turn, threatens to push people back into poverty by limiting access to resources. One of these resources is online education that has become unavailable to 90% of students due to lockdown measures. Enhancement of the quality, availability, and affordability of the Internet was therefore stressed as a priority, as well as an investment in digital literacy and skills which was particularly emphasised by Greece.
Tech in Voluntary National Reviews
The VNRs (perhaps with reason) were a lot more concrete in terms of the role of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in the attainment of SDGs. The digital was addressed in 44 out of 45 analysed VNR. In addition to sharing data on Internet penetration, and the number of computer and smartphone users, certain countries went a step further and provided concrete examples of the digital transformation as means of the implementation of the 2030 Agenda. National efforts range from cybersecurity and strengthening of the digital economy to digital literacy.
For instance, North Macedonia highlighted that it was the first country in the region to adopt digital identities, while Estonia has created a nation-wide digital registry for hospitals which helps individuals find an appointment with a medical specialist. Austria, which has incorporated digitalisation as one of its three focus areas, launched the ‘fit4Internet’ initiative that aims to leave no one in the digital age behind, whereas Bangladesh has undertaken measures to make all government websites accessible to persons with disabilities and provide them with digital learning platforms. A similar course of action has been taken in Uganda where a ‘National Digital Vision’ was developed in order to minimise the exclusion of the most vulnerable and marginalised groups. Just across the border in Kenya, an online work program ‘Ajira Digital’ was launched to boost youth participation in online work.
That said, the VNRs focused on the challenges of digital transformation. North Macedonia, Papua New Guinea, Mozambique, and Bulgaria cited that the low investments in technology development are slowing down the digitalisation and adoption of technology, and are having, among other things, a negative impact on financial inclusion, growth of businesses, delivery of public services, and precision agriculture.
Challenges are equally faced on SDG indicators. With 9.3% of the adult population using the Internet, Malawi is unlikely to meet the target of 100% set out in the SDG indicator 'Proportion of individuals using the Internet' (Indicator 17.8.1.). Citing weak telecommunications infrastructure, the size of the country, and relatively weak population density, Niger also remains behind in connecting to the Internet since in 2018 only 10.2% of its population was online.
As illustrated in the VNRs, digitalisation goes far beyond the Internet haves and have-nots, and encompasses a myriad of factors ranging from the availability of the right infrastructure, to the mindset and readiness to embrace digitalisation.
What for some may appear as an increasingly digitalising world for others remains a hurdle on the path to sustainable development.