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ACCELERATING DIGITAL TRANSFORMATION

SIDS are at a moment of great promise where digital technology is concerned. Artificial intelligence, blockchain, cryptocurrency, the Internet of things, drones and satellite monitoring—the future is here. Digitalization is generating opportunities to leapfrog into a sustainable future where government services are more efficient, accountable and accessible to citizens, core sectors are less vulnerable to shocks and natural disasters, and goods and services are more sustainably produced, and affordable and accessible to all.

Many SIDS are small and nimble by nature, making them well situated for pioneering innovations. A number have made significant progress already in improving core infrastructure and moving towards universal and affordable Internet access. Raising awareness and building capacity around digitalization will be key to realizing continued promise.

Using a ‘whole-of-society’ approach, UNDP plays the role of proactively connecting the dots between governments, small businesses, consumers and emerging opportunities in SIDS. It draws on a vast knowledge base from its policy networks and Accelerator Labs to help SIDS harness technology to accelerate progress on the SDGs. Support centres on the design of national digital strategies, using tech to deepen resilience and inclusion, establishing digital ecosystems and developing capacities.

DEVELOPING NATIONAL DIGITAL STRATEGIES

With the global pandemic pushing entire sectors of society and the economy into dependence on the digital domain, governments have rushed to develop and improve digital transformation strategies. Yet so far, only about half of SIDS have such a strategy in place. In response to quickly escalating demand in 2020, UNDP scaled up support to develop these.

With assistance from the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA)-UNDP Strategic Collaboration Programme, UNDP’s Global Policy Network has expanded its capacity to provide technical and policy support for digital transformation across SIDS. In Grenada, the Government is leveraging technology, innovation and human capital to define plans to be a smart small State that will take the nation to a more sustainable, inclusive and prosperous future. UNDP is supporting the Government to develop an overarching vision for digital transformation for the entire society. The Smart Grenada vision will deliver economic growth and development for the country. Harnessing digitalization as an enabler and accelerator of development, it will yield increased productivity across key sectors such as tourism, government administration, commerce, education and agriculture. It has the potential to expand and open new development opportunities in financial services, the creative arts, digital media, ITC development, medical research and more. While Government-led, it will go beyond public administration, focusing on encouraging digital upskilling and incentivizing experimentation and innovation among businesses and citizens. The vision aims to leverage the strengths of the country, in the spirit of the SIDS offer, turning challenges into opportunities in agriculture, marine environments and tourism, and tackling key structural vulnerabilities to environmental and external shocks.

Globally, new tools are emerging through UNDP’s ambitious corporate Digital Strategy. One example is the Digital Readiness Assessment tool, which Dominica is using to draft a national strategy linking digital transformation to jobs and sustainable growth. Developed entirely for the post-COVID-19 norm and completely virtual, the tool supports self-assessment and data aggregation, and establishes a national readiness dashboard facilitating data-driven policymaking.

A UNDP partnership with UNCDF and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) on the Pacific Digital Economy Programme supports national digital economy strategies implemented through collaboration between the public and private sectors. In Fiji, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga and Vanuatu, the programme builds capacities for data collection to inform the strategies as well as new policies and regulations to guide the digital economy.

UNDP collaborates with the Government of Singapore, a leader among SIDS in advancing digital transformation, on the Global Centre for Technology, Innovation and Sustainable Development.

DIGITIZING PUBLIC DATA

Digitization is key in building government capacity and infrastructure to deliver on the SDGs, including as part of recovery efforts. A few SIDS have digitized data and government services, while in others, digitization remains at a rudimentary level. UNDP supports advances such as digitizing health-care services to reach marginalized and remote communities in Lusophone SIDS. Both Cabo Verde and São Tomé and Príncipe have implemented open-source district health information systems (DHIS2) to better extend health-care services to vulnerable groups.

Prior to the pandemic, UNDP supported Guinea-Bissau in digitizing the malaria response, replacing a hand-written lab data process that took up to three weeks. The dissemination of mobile tablets to health facilities enabled electronic monitoring and has contributed to a 16 percent decrease in malaria-related deaths since 2017. During the pandemic, Guinea-Bissau has continued to evolve by digitizing COVID-19 clinical and laboratory processes through a DHIS2 system, helping to expand service reach and increase efficiency and encourage data collection through its new healthcare portal.

TOWARDS FINANCIAL INCLUSION

Digital tools are rapidly increasing access to financial services for the poor in many SIDS, with the potential for significant impacts on their lives and livelihoods. Tools such as mobile banking are closing gender gaps and bringing people in rural areas and the informal sector into the formal financial arena. UNDP backs such efforts through digital identification systems and innovative finance, seeking to extend financial and social inclusion to all people in SIDS, and to close digital divides based on gender, geographical location, income level and other social determinants

In the Dominican Republic and Haiti, UNDP is fostering financial inclusion through digital payments. This is transforming the provision of social protection services to 850,000 families who are beneficiaries of the Dominican Republic’s primary poverty reduction programme. Digital payments are used for a basic food basket, with payment mechanisms installed in businesses allowing quick access. In Haiti, given the relatively high access to mobile phones (60 percent of the population), UNDP uses digital means of payment to support microenterprises and community recovery projects.

With the United Nations Secretary-General’s Digital Financing Taskforce releasing its final report in 2020, generating momentum behind digitalization and financial inclusion globally, UNDP is ready to work more closely with UNCDF in exploring opportunities in SIDS to continue innovating and accelerating progress.

A PROGRAMME IN THE PACIFIC PROVIDES FINANCIAL INCLUSION TO 2 MILLION PEOPLE

The Pacific Financial Inclusion Programme has been at the forefront in driving uptake and innovation in digital financial services in the region. Supporting seven SIDS—Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Timor-Leste, Tonga and Vanuatu—this joint initiative by UNDP and UNCDF was launched in 2008, and since then has supported 2 million low-income Pacific Islanders to gain access to formal financial services and financial education.

The programme takes unconventional approaches. For instance, as a world first, Solomon Islanders can use airtime credit to deposit funds into their pension savings accounts. The voluntary saving scheme, launched in close collaboration with the Central Bank, is designed specifically for the self-employed and the informal sector to build a safety net.

While members initially had to deposit savings at only three offices countrywide, which was costly and time consuming, the programme has now joined mobile network operators to launch a digital savings channel allowing members to make deposits through mobile phones. The system uses mobile top ups, a service that can be accessed even via a very simple mobile phone and does not require a data connection. This enables easier and safer access for members anytime and anywhere in Solomon Islands.

Members can track their savings through free balance checks, which helps in planning, tracking and meeting savings goals. The programme has helped cushion the socioeconomic impacts of COVID-19 as many users were able to rely on money set aside in short-term savings account, and the Government was able to easily introduce a tax credit to support additional savings.

RESILIENCE AND INCLUSION

SIDS face immediate risks from sea-level rise and increasingly extreme weather induced by climate change. New technologies can be game changers in monitoring and communicating risks and coordinating responses. UNDP helped the Maldives, for instance, become an early adopter of using drones to map disaster risks and collect data on changes in topography. This makes emergency teams better prepared to respond to disasters and supports more evidence-based decision-making.

In Tuvalu, where most of the land, communities and infrastructure are barely above sea level, UNDP is using state-of-the-art, airplane-mounted LiDAR technology to rapidly collect precise information on land surface height and sea floor depth. This provides baseline data on the relationship between the two in order to model future scenarios and inform the design of coastal infrastructure. The data are valuable across government departments, assisting with adaptation, development planning, resource management and environmental monitoring linked to climate change.

Barbados now deploys artificial intelligence to map coral reefs, working through the BlueBot project, which is supported by the UNDP Accelerator Lab in the Barbados and Eastern Caribbean office. Semi-autonomous robots dive underwater to collect marine data, while machine learning algorithms classify, categorize and compress labelled data sets. The data can equip policymakers to protect and restore a diminishing resource.

By supporting upgrades to national early warning systems, such as state-of-the-art software that provides real-time information and predictions on storm surges as well as hydrometeorological data, UNDP helps save lives, livelihoods and infrastructure, and support resilience in the SIDS. Cost-benefit ratios for investments in the systems have been estimated to be as high as 500 to 1.1 In Papua New Guinea, UNDP has installed automated weather stations and early flood warning in five provinces. An underwater climate information system will be developed in Timor-Leste within a GCF programme.

In the Caribbean, UNDP has enhanced early warning capabilities through upgrades of systems and/or the installation and testing of equipment, including in Belize, Cuba, Barbados, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Guyana, Jamaica, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname, and Trinidad and Tobago. These countries have strengthened GIS capabilities for disaster response, risk mapping, monitoring platforms and short-term forecasting systems. They have introduced new meteorological instruments and data collection using satellite imagery.

UNDP has assisted in strengthening data collection for early warning systems in Comoros, the Maldives, Mauritius, and São Tomé and Principe. A mapping of São Tomé as part of UNDP’s Natural Hazards Dashboard for Surveyed African Households offers insights on types of natural hazards and an array of socioeconomic indicators.

LEGAL, POLICY AND REGULATORY FRAMEWORKS TO ENABLE DIGITAL TRANSFORMATION

Many countries, including SIDS, struggle to keep up with the legal, policy and regulatory frameworks needed for digital transformation, which is unfolding at unprecedented speed. Such frameworks are a necessary complement to national digital strategies to foster private sector innovation and enable digital transformation. So far, only a few are in place in SIDS, although efforts are underway in many more, a process supported by UNDP. In Guyana, for instance, UNDP supports new policies and legislation on e-commerce and cybersecurity.

A South-South capacity building initiative under the UNDP-UNCDF Pacific Financial Inclusion Programme has brought together the Central Bank of Sierra Leone and the Reserve Bank of Fiji. The former has shared lessons on regulations that promote innovation for financial inclusion.

UNDP also convenes dialogues among developing countries and more advanced states, such as with European countries on data governance and China on blockchain policy. Events such as the Samoa Digital Pacific Conference or the annual Innovation Day also provide valuable opportunities for such exchanges.

ENHANCING DIGITAL ECOSYSTEMS AND CAPACITY

Many SIDS continue to struggle with two key issues: digital capacities and inclusive access to digital technologies. The pandemic has accelerated use of technology yet exacerbated the digital divide for the most disconnected. Improving access to technology and skills is more urgent than ever. In 2020, UNDP took a number of related initiatives in SIDS, such as improving access to tablets and computers in schools, expanding Internet or mobile data access to remote areas, and targeting specific groups to acquire digital skills.

A programme in Guyana, for instance, is helping to extend the Internet and essential government services to people in hard-to-reach locations across the country. Up to 200 remote communities now have VSAT (very-small-aperture terminal) satellites that provide wi-fi. As a further measure, UNDP is partnering with key government ministries for health, education, public security, finance, local government, Amerindian affairs and others to make public services electronically accessible to communities. Training has encouraged populations in remote communities to begin using ICT to access public services.

In the Maldives, a UNDP social innovation grant backs development of the 'Thaana mellow' app, which enables blind and visually impaired persons to read and access local news in the local language. UNDP has joined the University of Bahrain, Tamkeen and Microsoft to enhance digital literacy for female students in Bahrain. An initiative in Trinidad and Tobago focused on youth in prison, bringing regular Internet access to one detention centre, and providing digital training and tools to residents and officers alike.

The Knowledge Society Initiative, a UNDP-United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) joint programme in the Cook Islands and Samoa, is helping to establish an accessible, localized knowledge platform providing access to full text, bibliographical and institutional information from national and international sources to students and researchers but also those living with disabilities and in rural areas.

COVID-19 has reinforced the imperative for SIDS to diversify their economies and reduce reliance on single industries, particularly tourism. Digital technologies have thus featured prominently in UNDP’s pandemic response in the SIDS, including through rapid support for digitally-enabled local entrepreneurship and jobs for youth and people in the informal sector.

In São Tomé and Principe, UNDP assists young entrepreneurs to develop innovative digital solutions such as online shopping apps, COVID-19 and other disease-tracking apps, and mobile money systems. In Guinea-Bissau, digital solutions are emerging for COVID-19 tracking, call centres and overall testing, and a hackathon series is incubating a start-up/tech ecosystem.

In Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean, during the COVID-19 response, UNDP developed #eFUTURE, an online step-by-step guide to help smaller businesses re-tool and discover new ways to reach customers, with practical tips and simple strategies to go digital.

In partnership with IsraAid and UNDP, the Government of Dominica launched Work Online Dominica to jumpstart a digital marketplace for freelancers between the ages of 18 to 40 as part of efforts to equip young people with skills and access to the digital economy. In the Solomon Islands, UNCDF and UNDP supported the Digital Marketplace Project in collaboration with Bulk shop, a major food vendor, and youth groups. It explores digital solutions connecting farmers to markets to ensure uninterrupted supplies of food during the pandemic.

Hackathons and challenges have been a key mechanism for UNDP and its Accelerator Labs to proactively support local recovery, innovation and entrepreneurship. The Island Hack in the Eastern Caribbean and the Pacific Sustainable Livelihoods Challenge called for digital solutions to restart the economy post-COVID and assist the most vulnerable to cope with social and economic adversity. Additional hackathons in Fiji, Guyana, Papua New Guinea and Samoa have tapped into local innovations to enable digital transformation.

UNDP’s integrated SIDS offer Rising Up for SIDS articulates a clear strategy to respond to their most pressing needs as well as bring forth innovative solutions to the complex developmental challenges they face for a better future for people and planet. UNDP's increased investment. This offer acts as a vehicle for recovery committing to enhancing current support in areas of climate action, blue economy and digital transformation, with innovative development finance as an enabling cross-cutting area.

Accelerating Digital Transformation is part of the Rising Up For SIDS Progress Report. To access this report, click the link below:

To learn more about UNDP's integrated service offer, click the link below:

For more updates on UNDP's development work on SIDS, and news about SIDS-led initiatives, please visit these pages:

Photo Credits: UNDP, UNDP Climate, UNDP Mauritius, UNCDF in the Pacific, Small Grants Programme UNDP GEF, Ecosystems and Biodiversity UNDP, Ocean Image Bank, Unsplash, Getty Images

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