As Chief Digital Officer of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Robert J. Opp plays a key role in the assistance that the agency provides to partner-countries, particularly the lower and middle income countries, in helping them build digital public infrastructure. In Hyderabad for the 2nd Digital Economy Working Group Meeting of the G20, Mr. Opp in an interaction with The Hindu spoke on the work being done, aspects countries ought to keep in mind and how India is a role model.
How does UNDP help its partner-countries build their digital public infrastructure?
We believe that much of future of development is digital given the power of new technologies to change and improve lives. We help countries build their digital public infrastructure. My role is primarily how to ensure UNDP is able to support the 170 country partners with digitally-enabled development programmes.
What are the key challenges in addressing the digital divide?
Globally, there are 2.7 billion people who are not yet connected regularly to the internet or not using it. Only a part of the problem is infrastructure as there are a number of different factors; of course, affordability is a big one while concern with online safety is another. We need to identify ways to bring more people to connect to the internet by addressing affordability issues and improving digital literacy. When we look at digital public infrastructure, which essentially refers to the digital equivalent of roads and bridges, India has made lots of progress.
You mentioned number of factors contribute to the digital divide. Can you elaborate?
In some countries, the issue is of mobile connection and cost of the device... it is expensive for the lowest-income population. So, countries like Rwanda are looking at how to serve their poorer citizens with schemes making the devices more affordable, talking to mobile phone manufacturers and financing institutions as also looking to either subsidise or make cheaper phones available or reuse existing devices.
Then there are issues around behavioural change which call for building trust. Gender digital divide is an issue in some Latin American countries where not as many women access [internet] connection because they aren’t sure of safety... [given] issues of online safety and harassment.
How would you rate the work undertaken by India as part of its digital transformation?
India has made incredible progress. UNDP has been privileged to be supporting the government of India on platforms like e-VIN and CoWin. Compared to the rest of the world, there have been massive advances in India and in a very short amount of time at a scale that is really impressive, in terms of how many people have so quickly been brought into systems like Aadhaar as digital ID, UPI and health systems.
The whole India stack is working to bring massive numbers of people into contact with government services and things. India is definitely a global leader in this space.
Does India then serve as a role model?
Absolutely, many countries before the COVID pandemic were thinking about how to incorporate digital, how to build... [while] countries like India and Estonia had already invested a lot in digital infrastructure before the pandemic. When COVID hit, it became immediately clear where the gaps were and where the benefits were. World Bank pointed to how countries that had digital identity platforms prior to the pandemic were much more effective in responding to the COVID pandemic in social protection payment. The pandemic really showed countries that they need to get serious about digital transformation. And that’s when UNDP started getting a lot more requests for support, not just with one application but the whole national digital strategy because they started thinking at that level.
The whole movement in G20 that India is leading is not so much about exporting the Indian model to the world; can we make the India, Estonia, Bangladesh model available to all other countries... so that they can pick and choose. The India model is being looked at by many countries, particularly countries that need to work at scale.
Technology also comes with its own set of challenges. In what ways is the UNDP helping the partner-countries?
New technologies are built to be more powerful. The question is how do we understand and embrace... make sure people are taking part in the benefits and at the same time, see to it that these technologies are not having a negative impact on people’s well being, in the form of misinformation, jeopardising people’s privacy, and in the case of generative AI, the negative impact on job market and that sort of things. We need to quickly adapt, be able to build new policies, ensure new technologies are being used properly, and that people are protected against negative impacts.