'Digital Dividends' - Speech by Minister De Croo during the launch of the World Bank World Development Report 2016
This morning, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Development Cooperation and Digital Agenda Alexander De Croo during presented 'Digital Dividends', the World Bank World Development Report 2016. In his opening speech, he insisted on the role of digitalization and innovation for development, especially in the least developing countries and countries in fragile contexts.
Launch World Development Report 2016: Digital Dividends
February 4th 2016
Alexander De Croo
Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Development Cooperation (Belgium)
Check against delivery
Mr. Deepak Mishra (co-Director of the World Development Report 2016),
Ladies and gentlemen,
It is a great pleasure to be here today, at the presentation of the World Bank’s World Development Report 2016, which is entirely devoted to the “Digital Dividends”.
Sometimes coincidences are nice. I would love to say that it was a conscious choice of Belgium to gather both digital agenda and international development under the umbrella of one minister, that Belgium when drafting the government manifesto had a clear vision of the incredible synergies between digital and development. But sometimes you just have to give the credit to mere chance.
But “beyond chance”, the role of digitalization and innovation for development rapidly became clear to me. Especially in the least developing countries and countries in fragile contexts, where Belgium has committed to focus at least 50% of its official development assistance. It quickly became clear that digitalization not only provides massive opportunities for increased efficiency, but that it is first and foremost a fundamental game changer.
We experience this daily in our economy, our society. New digital players are aggressively questioning classic business models. These ‘new kids on the block’ are taking advantage of the new digital opportunities that loom at the horizon. There is no reason why digitalization should not be a game changer for international development alike.
Yes, we must recognize that the distribution of the benefits of digitalization is still largely uneven – that the benefits are largely in favor of the already better off, as this World Development Report shows.
But this conclusion can us not provide with an excuse for excluding developing countries and their peoples from the massive benefits of digitalization. All international development actors – governments, international institutions, the private sector, and civil society – should adopt an all-encompassing and all-inclusive approach that leaves no one behind. The benefits of digital should be benefits for all.
In this endeavor, there is one incredibly good thing – ‘a giant leap for all’ to start with. It is Africans who have shown the West that a phone can be much more than a simple means of communication. Even before banking with smartphones had really taken off, M-PESA was enabling mobile payments for millions of unbanked individuals changing the nature of Kenyan business. Financial inclusion is an incredible empowerment opportunity for those people that are still, today in 2016, part of what Paul Collier has framed The Bottom Billion.
Cellphones are also empowering efforts to report corruption in Uganda, births in Tanzania, absentee teachers in DRC, health care quality in Burundi or simply, to organize, through social media, a collective action to overthrow a dictator.
Digitalization is not just about cellphones; it’s also about data. An incredible amount of data are being produced on a daily basis and, when put to good use, they can contribute to the insights of us, decision-makers, that may be life-saving.
Especially in LDC's where governments generally lack good data to build their policies. Companies such as Belgium’s Real Impact Analytics currently are undertaking ground-breaking work – in the case of Real Impact Analytics the prediction of epidemic trends through making sense out of mobile phone usage. UNICEF has used their data in the fight against Ebola, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has used it for countering malaria epidemics in Zambia, and – at this very moment – their big data are put at use to tackle the Zika virus.
Last but not least, open data are also changing the rules of the game. Some organizations, such as the World Resource Institute are already working on making data sources not only accessible, but more importantly, also actionable by people. Opening up these data increases transparency and accountability, two important levers for development.
Ladies and gentlemen,
I think you start understanding that Belgium is a true believer of digitalization. Digital technologies do not just introduce new parameters to existing development structures. Digitalization is transforming the very paradigm in which development takes place.
WHAT WE DO
Belgium advocates the importance of digitalization for development both internationally and at home. Mid-2015, I have shared my enthusiasm with my European colleagues. Indeed, no less than 15 EU Ministers of International Development sent a common letter to High Representative Mogherini and Commissioner Mimica, requesting the EU and its Member States to take digitalization into account in their development policies.
Last year, at the Financing for Development Summit in Addis Abeba and the UN summit in New York that adopted the 2030 Agenda, I have systematically emphasized the contribution that digitalization could bring to the implementation of the SDG's.
And next April, I will co-host the High-Level Symposium of the Development Cooperation Forum, here in Brussels. At this Symposium I will organize a special event on the digital challenges that loom at the horizon for LDC’s for their implementation of the 2030 Agenda.
At home, in Belgium, I have tasked my own administration to provide all our development actions with digital or data components. Not only as a tool to work more efficiently or to please the ego of a “techno-geek minister”. But, more importantly, to tap into the transformational power of digitalization. I do hope that, within the next few years, our emphasis on digital will become a noticeable trademark of Belgium’s international development policy.
RESISTANCE AND CONCERNS
It goes without saying that I am being met with skepticism and questions about this approach. It’s quite logical. Change always provokes uneasiness at the beginning. But we should consider this as a positive token. It keeps us awake for challenges ahead. And we must admit that real risks exist and certain concerns are legitimate.
A Belgian blogpost came out this week, titled: “The Only Way to Defeat a Computer is with a Hammer”. The article exposed the concern that, while innovation peaks, automation makes jobs increasingly obsolete as robots more and more replace man-and-women-power.
Of course, this is a valid concern. As decision-makers we should take this into consideration. Nonetheless, enabling more accurate diagnosis and treatment in a dispensary through simple tools that already are present in a smartphone will not replace the very few doctors in the DRC by robots. It will rather allow these doctors to focus on the more complex cases and enable them to provide their patients with a better service.
The question is not whether we should invest in digital health solutions or in the training of doctors in a country where one doctor services 10,000 people. The question is how can digital technology leverage the limited health resources of a country to bring it to the next level. In short, it’s all about win-win solutions: digitalization should empower man-and-woman-power – not replace it.
Of course, we should be attentive to adapt this new set of tools wisely, responsibly and constructively and never lose sight of the fact that digital technology always is an instrument and never an end in itself
The same goes for big data. While there is an enormous potential in the possibilities of big data, we have to embed their use in a people-centered, inclusive and development-oriented agenda. This means that the adaption of legal frameworks protecting security and privacy is more pertinent than ever.
I am glad that the World Bank has highlighted in its report three specific enablers to make sure the benefits of digitalization become a reality for everyone. These three enablers, Skills, Business regulation and Accountable Government, were part of the concept paper I shared with my EU-colleagues.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Let me conclude.
Digitalization is a global and transformative process that concerns us all. It is our responsibility that everyone can enjoy its transformative power. Also in LDC’s.
It is our obligation – our moral obligation – to engage with both public and private stakeholders to allow the digital revolution to bring digital dividends to everyone.
Bill Gates once said: “Never before in history has innovation offered promise of so much to so many in so short a time.”
This says it all.
This new World Development Report will prove to be an important tool and source of inspiration to undertake this endeavor in a reasonable and responsible way.
So, thank you World Bank for this new World Development Report.
I’d say: Let’s get the job done!