The year 2017 was an important milestone in moving forward the European agenda for Digital for Development (D4D). The European Commission (EC) paper on mainstreaming digital technologies into EU development policy and the European Council conclusions on Digital for Development have activated the European development community to share opinions and ideas on how to help bridge the global digital divide.
In the past month, we have had a couple of open events in Brussels to discuss this important issue. The European Parliament’s EPP group hosted a public hearing on Digitalisation for Development to collect ideas and to push for more progress. Two weeks later, the EC held the first multistakeholder meeting for Digital4Development with a focus on Africa.
Building a Balanced Agenda
There are a number of pillars of activities that most stakeholders agree on. These include Internet access with a focus on last mile; Internet as an enabler across different sectors; skills; and entrepreneurship. During the recent meetings, the EC, the national development agencies and the private sector showcased impressive and innovative digitalisation programmes.
However, several stakeholders pointed out that while it is important to continue to invest in Internet access, this is no longer enough. We need to make cybersecurity and privacy an integral part of the digitalisation efforts in the developing world. The Internet Society has worked on guidelines on Internet security and privacy specifically aimed at the African community.
Making the Most of Our Resources
The European development institutions tend to focus on large-scale digital infrastructure or sector modernisation programmes, while the private sector makes efforts to build an eco-system that supports their business interests. What about the digitalisation of the most remote and deprived communities? How do we extend the “Internet opportunity” to the most challenging countries or regions, where there are limited diplomatic ties and no commercial incentives?
Going forward, civil society organisations need to take a more prominent role in sharing their expertise with the other stakeholders and in highlighting the needs of these communities. The Internet Society is helping remote communities connect to the Internet through our Community Networks initiative.
Consolidating the Multistakeholder Approach
The EU and its Member States continue to be the world’s leading provider of development assistance and hence have an important role in promoting the D4D agenda. Bringing a multitude of stakeholders together is a great first step and the European tech sector was present in great numbers. However, we need to find a way to increase the civil society participation in these discussions to have a truly balanced approach to D4D in terms of expertise and coverage.
It was clear from these discussions that most stakeholders share the bottom-line principles for D4D and are keen to engage. But it will take some time before we will understand each other’s terminology and ways of working. And we are likely to face some serious bumps on the road before the multistakeholder approach will show its strength. However, working together is the only way to accelerate our D4D efforts and to make real progress.