The SDG Lab and UN Geneva Library & Archives collaborate to bring you a podcast mini-series exploring COVID-19’s effects on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs.)
In this first episode of 'It Takes a Global Crisis', we explore the impact of COVID-19 on digitization and connectivity with guests Doreen Bogdan-Martin, Director of the ITU Telecommunication Development Bureau (BDT) and Ibrahima Guimba-Saïdou, the Minister Special Advisor to President of Niger and CEO of the National Agency for Information Society (ANSI). We assess issues of digitization and connectivity through the lens of the SDGs and whether progress has been accelerated or disadvantaged due to the pandemic. So, did it take a global crisis to advance digitization and connectivity?
When lockdowns hit worldwide as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, people were forced to learn, work, and shop online, which drove governments and society to accelerate access to digitization and digital applications. However, as Bogdan-Martin explains, there remain significant gaps. Today, according to ITU’s latest figures, 2.9 billion people, 96 per cent of whom live in developing countries, don’t have access to connectivity; meaning, they can’t benefit from digital services and applications, according to Bogdan-Martin. While the pandemic may have thrusted some governments and societies into action, creating opportunities for connectivity, it also set the world back in terms of progress on the SDGs and left the world’s poorest behind. “If we don’t get digital to the masses, it will be difficult to achieve the SDGs,” Bogdan-Martin, said.
In Niger, a vast, arid state, prior to the pandemic, service delivery was focused on Niamey, the capital, and other cities, according to Guimba-Saïdou. The pandemic exposed weaknesses in Niger’s telecom sector, which left out more rural and remote areas. Niger has since focused on “balancing that bridge between the major cities and the rest of the country,” Guimba-Saïdou explained.
Niger, the world’s youngest population, took a challenge and turned it into an opportunity. Take, for example, the Smart Village Blueprint, a pilot project aimed to provide broadband infrastructure to improve internet access to rural and remote areas of the country. The Smart Village model invites local contexts into the discussion to develop solutions specific to the challenges communities face by consulting with women, village leaders, farmers, and community leaders. Rather than a top-down, siloed approach, it aims to distribute and integrate decision-making.
To continue the momentum, though, and achieve the needed results, Guimba-Saïdou said a carpooling-for-development approach is essential. “We all need to be on the same bus and drive in the same direction,” he said. It took a pandemic to make us realize the world is a global village,” he said.
Bogdan-Martin agrees. To view connectivity and digital issues that cut across all sectors of the economy, a whole-of-government approach is required. To attract the needed investment to connect the world would require billions of dollars of infrastructure, and “everybody needs to be in the same car,” Bogdan-Martin said. The ITU World Telecommunication Development Conference (WTDC) according to Bodan-Martin is a unique opportunity to discuss such issues and develop innovative approaches and new models of collaboration for connectivity and digital solutions to achieve the SDGs. The conference is scheduled to take place in June 2022, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.