Leaving no one behind in our post-pandemic recovery: How can technology help?

Leaving no one behind in our post-pandemic recovery: How can technology help?
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Nineteen months after the World Health Organization characterized the COVID-19 outbreak as a pandemic, the situation in many parts of the world is still far too concerning. As new variants have intensified the toll of COVID-19, the pandemic continues to prove that its pervasive effects go far beyond the health aspects of the crisis. The pandemic has also triggered a global “human, economic and social crisis,” contributing to 97 million more people being in poverty in 2020 and exacerbating issues such as unemployment, food insecurity and hunger.

Although this multifaceted crisis is unfolding across the world, its effects are not felt equally everywhere, or by everyone. While all countries have suffered in tackling the pandemic, developing economies will likely experience more prolonged effects from the economic downturn. Across societies, the most vulnerable groups such as youth, the elderly, people with disabilities, those living in poverty, as well as racial and ethnic minorities, are suffering the most. 

“The pandemic has painfully exposed this inequality once more, that was hidden just underneath the surface,” noted the Hague’s Deputy Mayor, Saskia Bruines, during a recent public webinar hosted by the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI) on technology and bridging post-pandemic inequality. As countries and cities all over the world take the first steps in the recovery from the pandemic, efforts need to be made to prevent such inequality from becoming the often-referred-to “new normal.”

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The twofold potential of technology in a digitally divided world

Technology is one of the largest drivers of development in our increasingly digital global economy. Global internet usage grows every year, including during the COVID-19 pandemic. Frontier technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and blockchain are also growing exponentially. These are interdependent, interconnected and mutually reinforcing new technologies that benefit from digitalization and connectivity to multiply their impacts. If harnessed properly and with full respect for human rights, the internet and new technologies are powerful tools to improve health, the environment and well-being worldwide. They can create a more inclusive economy and contribute to stopping hunger, creating better jobs for all and enhancing prosperity globally. In essence, technologies such as these have the potential to “turbocharge” progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals — our internationally recognized blueprint for a better and more sustainable future for all.

However, not all countries benefit equally from these technologies. 

Access to the internet is unequal across the globe. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) reported that in 2020, 3.7 billion people — just under half of the world's population — were not using the internet. Most people left offline were in the least developed countries and were women and girls.

Similar divides are emerging with frontier technologies. By 2020, less than one third of the world had adopted national AI policies and strategies. The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) Technology and Innovation Report 2021 has found that developing countries — particularly those in Sub-Saharan Africa, Northern Africa and Latin America, and the Caribbean — are the least prepared to use, adopt and adapt frontier technologies.  

As warned by the UNCTAD, without appropriate policies in place, the growing global digital divide, made worse by COVID-19, may cause technological development to increase disparities instead of contributing to bridging the inequality gap. Such contrasts enhance instabilities and tensions and may even threaten peace and security. They should therefore be a concern for every country and the international community at large. For a truly universal recovery from the COVID-19 crisis, it is paramount to ensure that the benefits of new technologies reach all countries and sectors of our societies. 

What can governments, the private sector and the international community do?

We are at a tipping point where digital transformation is accelerating in a multi-layered crisis.

The disruption caused by the pandemic and the resulting boost in innovation are opportunities to build a better future for everyone, to "do it right" this time.

With the right policies, governments, the private sector and the international community have the power and the responsibility to shape a new era where no one is left behind. Technology is paramount to achieve this, but how?

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Efforts should be made so that technological development reaches all parts of the world as we rebuild it. Countries that have not adopted digital strategies should be encouraged and supported to do so by the international community. All countries should focus on implementing such strategies in a human-centric and empowering way. In doing so, they should be guided by the following objectives:    

  1. Improve digital education globally. Lack of digital skills is one of the most significant barriers to using the internet and accessing frontier technologies. Digital literacy should be expanded across countries and reach all parts of society. Everyone, including the most disadvantaged people, should have access to education on topics such as data rights, cybersecurity and the prevention of cyber-bullying. Governments and the international community should invest in programs to improve digital literacy and education to ensure that everyone understands how to use technology and do so in a safe, healthy and empowering manner. 
  2. Empower the youth and other vulnerable groups. Empowering vulnerable groups is essential to prevent crime by reducing social exclusion, discrimination, lack of education, unemployment and other factors that increase the risk of individuals becoming criminal offenders or victims. Besides building digital literacy, governments and the international community should improve digital infrastructures and combat disparities that hinder equal access to technology.
  3. Leverage the potential of technology for sustainable development. AI, blockchain and other frontier technologies have tremendous potential to create a more prosperous and sustainable future for all. If properly harnessed, they can contribute to the achievement of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. Policies at a local, national and international level focusing on maximizing this potential while minimizing the risks of these technologies, including threats to human rights, should sprawl across the world, including developing countries.
  4. Emphasize recovery through inclusive technological development. Besides setting the right policies and strategies, sufficient emphasis needs to be placed on supporting developing countries to harness the potential of new technologies to shape a more sustainable future for all in the post-pandemic recovery. The international community, governments, tech entrepreneurs, and companies should ensure that technology can be accessed and benefit all. Developed economies, in particular, should support and share their experiences with developing countries post-pandemic to stimulate the recovery of the global economy. 
  5. Promote dialogue and cooperation internationally. Dialogue between the public and private sectors should be streamlined and collaboration between governments, the tech sector, advocacy groups, educators and civil society should be promoted. Only this can ensure that global action is taken, which is key to provide a global recovery.

In the words of the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, “Technology can turbocharge the recovery from COVID-19 and the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. (…) Now is the time for global leaders to decide: Will we succumb to chaos, division and inequality? Or will we right the wrongs of the past and move forward together, for the good of all?”

Mark Minevich is president of Going Global Ventures. He is a global digital cognitive strategist and artificial intelligence expert and venture capitalist. He also serves as executive chair, Digital Pioneers Network and as chief digital strategist at the International Research Centre for AI, under the auspices of UNESCO. He is a member of the B20 digital economy taskforce in the G20 Presidency, a member of the World Economic Forum Council on AI for Humanity, a senior fellow of U.S. Council on Competitiveness, an advisor at Boston Consulting Group and digital fellow at IPsoft/Amelia. Follow him on Twitter @MMinevich.

Irakli Beridze is the Head of the Centre for Artificial Intelligence and Robotics for UNICRI, United Nations. He is working on AI related governance, security, crime prevention and human rights issues, as well as global solutions through use of AI and related technologies to fulfil the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). He is a member of various international working groupsincluding the World Economic Forum’s Global Artificial Intelligence Council. He is an International Gender Champion and recipient of recognition on the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the OPCW in 2013. Follow him on Twitter @Irakli_UN