How can digital government contribute to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals?


Screenshot of the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals website
Screenshot of the SDGs website

We’re often asked what contribution digital technology can make to sustainable development. I think the answer lies in the relationships between digital governments and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The SDGs are a list of goals approved  in 2015 by the UN General Assembly and all Member States as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. They focus on economic development, social inclusion and environmental protection and constitute  “a plan of action for people, planet and prosperity”. The Agenda has been designed with the aim of making global development more sustainable and more inclusive.

The 2030 Agenda acknowledges that technology has revolutionised society, but cites “technologies” and “ICTs” only as implementation tools. It does not develop further how they should  be implemented in practice, or why they can help the achievement of the SDGs. This already makes it hard to understand the relationship between the two, let alone the role of digital governments. On top of that, all the research and policy literature on the topic focus only on technological implementation, failing to see the bigger picture.

Digital is not only about the use of technologies but also about their application to culture, processes, and business models. Technologies have a huge potential to help achieving the goals, but not on their own. Governments should invest not only in technology but also in people and teams, infrastructure and institutions. Governments also need this know-how to be able to properly regulate technologies. This is why it is essential to investigate the role played by digital governments in the achievement of SDGs rather than simply the role of technology.

Governments should exploit technological opportunities to design more efficient, inclusive and user-centered services. Technologies allow for 24/7 availability, further accessibility and geographical reach, and reduced time and cost service delivery.

Within this context, mobile phones constitute an essential resource due to their large and constantly increasing penetration. Nowadays, more than two-thirds of the global population have access to a mobile, though only 60% of them are smartphone users.

Since the SDGs are interconnected, digital governments can have an impact on all of them. In this blog post, I just want to focus on goals 3, 4, and 16 since they are the ones majorly affected by digital governments and have a wider impact on the whole Agenda.

  • 3: Good health and well-being
  • 4: Quality education
  • 16: Peace, justice and strong institutions

Digital health

Goal 3 focuses on ensuring good health and well-being for all. Achieving this goal can help tackle other issues on the agenda such as poverty (goal 1), inequality (10) and gender gap (5). In this area, digital governments can really make an impact by maximising resources and decreasing costs and time to deliver services.

In 2016, the Rwandan government partnered with Zipline, an American drone company, and managed to cut delivery time of medical products to remote areas from four hours to 45 minutes.

Digital governments can improve services by increasing interconnectivity and communication since technologies facilitate information flows. A very successful example has been the use of mobile phones to provide health advice and information, and to respond to queries. Following this line of action, the South African National Department of Health has developed MomConnect, targeting pregnant women. The initiative has 2.5 million registered users, and covers 63% of the population and 95% of clinics as part of the initiative.

Digital education

Goal 4 aims to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education for all. Education is considered the greatest social equalizer since it provides critical skills and competencies that will open up more and better work opportunities, giving people a way out of poverty. Geographical location matters in the traditional education system with proximity to school affecting student attendance, teacher presence, academic performance and quality of education. Digital governments can break this physical link since technologies allow to deliver and access high quality content regardless of location.

For example: Uruguay’s Plan Ceibal provided all kids in compulsory education with personal computers and developed a wifi network throughout the country. This initiative allowed the government to address issues such as the lack of native english teachers within the country thanks to lessons via video conferences.

The numbers go dramatically lower when it comes to higher education especially in sub-Saharan Africa and south east Asia. Many of those places have higher education participation rates below 10%. Major issues are cost and/or accessibility. To tackle the latter, Senegal has developed the first public fully online university in the continent that is now the second largest university in the country with more than 28,000 students.

Open government

Goal 16 calls for the need to ensure “peace, justice and strong institutions”. It calls for institutions to be transparent and accountable to their people. Citizens’ participation, monitoring and feedback can improve governance performance and service quality, and reduce corruption. Open government can be the solution to achieve this goal. Open government is based on the idea that citizens should be able to access public documents and data and use them to be involved in decision-making processes and to hold their governments into account. But this cannot happen in practice without the support of digital technologies because they allow to create data registers that can be accessed at any time from any location simultaneously.

Thanks to its national strategies aiming at open government and especially open contracting, Paraguay managed to cut procurement costs by 1.4% in 2016, drop adjustments and amendments to contracting processes from 19% in 2013 to 3% in 2016, and to increase public procurement portal website visits by 32% in one year.

Uganda managed to improve its health sector thanks to IParticipate, an initiative aimed at the integration of technologies to monitor governance and service delivery through open data.

Final thoughts

It’s clear, I think, that technologies can help to fight  inequalities and promote a more inclusive development. But they can also create further divides and inequalities, and risk further marginalising vulnerable groups. The risk here is that technologies  could end up working against the SDGs if the new challenges they bring are not addressed properly.

These challenges include:

  • access to and use of technologies since one third of the world population is still offline
  • the creation of new monopolies of knowledge and power such as “the big five”
  • the erosion of public sector’s governance capacities due to the rise of these new international monopolies
  • the loss of data sovereignty and civic rights caused by this new trend of data capitalism

Technologies by themselves cannot be the solution. Governments must develop strategies and strengthen their governance structures and capacities to mitigate the potential risks posed by technologies.

Only when everyone will be able to benefit from the advantages offered by technological implementations in public services, it would be possible to say that it would be possible to say that digital governments have accomplished their mission within sustainable development. Bridging the digital divide is essential to fulfil the 2030 Agenda and to “leave no one behind.”

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