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Promoting Digital Transformation in Lower-Income Countries

Chukwudi Onike — Former Senior Associate, Innovation, The Rockefeller Foundation
Photo by Alex Knight on Unsplash

From the outset, The Rockefeller Foundation has worked closely to build capacity of governments at all levels. From our work helping to establish the field of public health and its earliest institutions around the world, to contributing to shaping the social security system in the U.S., the Foundation has supported government agencies in taking on new tasks and administering them skillfully. These experiences have taught us two important lessons: government, when at its best, has a comparative advantage over other sectors in achieving social impact at scale; and while philanthropic funding can play a role in improving human outcomes, it clearly cannot replace government funding or its service delivery capabilities.

With a digital revolution underway, governments are now determining how to deliver programs and services at mass scale using digital technology while understanding new challenges and opportunities that come with adapting to rapid technological advancements and shifting user expectations. Hence, the Foundation is looking to support governments in this new era to responsibly leverage the potential of data and technology to improve people’s lives.

By fostering positive enabling environments for innovation, digitizing in a nimble and agile way, and designing solutions that are demand-driven, lower-income countries can position themselves for success in the digital future.

However, much of the discourse in this space originates in wealthier countries with the financing and technical expertise to tackle complex digital government efforts. Lower-income countries, on the other hand, appear to be at a disadvantage because they run the risk of being left behind, without the tools, resources, or expertise to keep up. As The Rockefeller Foundation deepens its knowledge and engagement on behalf of the most vulnerable, we believe lower-income countries can make gains toward becoming effective “digital states” by adopting three strategies we’ve observed in other successful efforts:

Support the enabling environment for technological innovation.

Innovation is often stymied by weak, outdated or nonexistent policies and regulations; at the same time, governments often lack the technical expertise to advance effective policy. By establishing policy and regulatory frameworks that unlock experimentation, and open up markets for new digital products and services, governments can draw in talent, expertise, and resources from elsewhere in the world, while strengthening domestic capabilities. For example, Smart Africa, an alliance of over 20 African countries and a number of international organizations and companies, is working with governments to create a single continental digital market that will allow digital transactions to be done seamlessly across borders and bolster a growing continental digital economy.

Adopt an agile lean approach to digital transformation.

Conventional digitization initiatives tend to be large-scale, top-down, capital-intensive projects that risk being too rigid to adapt to evolving needs of users and are prone to vendor lock-in. Rather, governments can take another approach: opting to be more agile by piloting “lean” platforms that are less expensive, rapidly deployable, interoperable, modular, and user-centric. For example, the Gov.UK MVP (minimum viable product) took only 12 weeks and less than $500,000 to develop, but is now one of the world’s most comprehensive and effective government platforms. By strategically implementing targeted digital platform pilots that are designed to scale when the opportunity presents itself, lower-income countries can position themselves for further expansion when the value proposition of the platforms has been proven. Our grantees at New America have demonstrated the potential of this approach to digitization in Georgia where a blockchain-based digital land registry they helped pilot is now being scaled countrywide.

Design solutions for people, with people in mind.

Research shows that trust in institutions is at an all-time low globally. And despite the benefits they offer, digital technologies raise a number of concerns with the public, especially around security, ethics, and privacy. Digital solutions that do not involve input from citizens and other stakeholders will only exacerbate mistrust and reinforce the doubts citizens have about how governments use their data. Participatory design of technology solutions is a powerful way to ensure solutions have enough buy-in from the people they are meant to serve, but also have a higher likelihood of large-scale uptake. For example, Prozorro, Ukraine’s public e-procurement platform, was developed through a collaborative process that included government officials, civil society organizations, and the private sector. The award-winning platform was designed to make it possible for government bodies to conduct procurement deals electronically, in a transparent manner, while also making information about public contracts easily accessible online to anyone. Although it was initially conceived as a tool for fighting corruption, the potential benefits are much broader—increasing competition, reducing time and money spent on contracting processes, helping buyers make better decision, and making procurement fairer for suppliers.

Adopting these strategies does not negate the fact that in many countries, there are still deep structural challenges that need to be addressed before population-wide scale can happen: limited ICT infrastructure (e.g., broadband internet), lack of political will, and insufficient technical expertise locally are just a few examples. But these are not reasons more countries should not push ahead with digital transformation efforts. Just as some countries leapfrogged to mobile phones and skipped landlines, digital technology solutions have the same potential to help governments leapfrog legacy technologies altogether. By fostering positive enabling environments for innovation, digitizing in a nimble and agile way, and designing solutions that are demand-driven, lower-income countries (and frankly, all countries) can position themselves for success in the digital future.

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