Following are UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed’s remarks, as prepared for delivery, at the World Economic Forum plenary on “Shaping Inclusive Growth and Shared Futures in the Fourth Industrial Revolution”, in Cape Town today:
We are at the dawn of new era thanks to unprecedented technological change. Technological advances bring much promise, but also much unpredictability. They add to the uncertainty of a world already unsettled by resurgent geopolitical conflicts, climate change and other global challenges. They also add a new element to a scourge that each of our societies continues to battle with — violence against women and girls. Social media has become a new platform to target, threaten and silence women and an increasing contributor to violence in all forms.
To come to terms with these uncertainties and their implications for partnerships is critical, and I thank the World Economic Forum for its support as our partnership continues to deepen and grow more dynamic, shaping a new narrative for inclusive and just globalization.
The fourth Industrial Revolution has spread faster than any of its predecessors. It took over 60 years for cars to reach 50 million users; it took electricity 46 years to reach the same number of users; it took mobile phones 13 years and the Internet just 7 years to reach that number of users. And today, a viral video or new video game can reach tens of millions of people in a matter of days.
New technology has spread at a speed faster than we are able to grasp or manage its collateral impact on development, on peace and security and on human rights. Our shared challenge — encompassing Governments, civil society, the academic community and industry itself — is to further the good it can bring while better managing its potential to undermine development, harm peace and security and curtail the enjoyment of human rights.
Technological advances offer great hope for accelerating progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Digital technology connects people across the world instantaneously and provides access to information and services at a very low cost. In the last 10 years, millions of people in developing countries opened their first financial account, thanks to digital ID and mobile technologies.
Digital access can improve the quality of education where qualified teachers are not readily available. People living in areas without medical services now have access to health-care providers via remote digital devices, thus preventing the toll of the disease burden on women and children. At the same time, automation and robots have accelerated the substitution of capital for labour. Businesses in the platform economy employ fewer workers and are more dependent on intellectual property and other intangible capital.
These trends are making income and wealth distribution more unequal. Despite the increasing availability of new technologies, people living in poverty still do not fully enjoy the benefits. The world has a new dimension of inequality — the digitally empowered on the one hand and the digitally deprived on the other. Globally, women are disproportionately represented in the digitally deprived, leading to significant loss of opportunity for them and of half our potential and capacity for all. If Governments and the international community do not better proactively manage this digital divide in all its new and old dimensions, the fourth Industrial Revolution could exacerbate inequality and make growth less inclusive, with severe human security consequences.
Debates surrounding the fourth Industrial Revolution often focus on developed countries and some emerging economies. But, these debates are equally relevant for Africa. The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa predicts that half of Africa’s population will own smart phones by 2020. The rising profile of the platform economy across the continent could not only improve the production and flow of goods and services between countries, but also help realize wide-ranging economies of scale. Such benefits can be of particular importance in sub-Saharan Africa, where 95 per cent of businesses are small and medium-sized enterprises.
We can all be encouraged by the many examples of effective use of advanced technologies in Africa. In Rwanda, medicine is being delivered by drones. In Uganda, a biomedical smart jacket — which can measure body temperature, heart rate and lung condition — is helping doctors diagnose pneumonia. In Nigeria, crowd sourcing is providing financial support for thousands of farmers. In Kenya, a blockchain application is assisting in land registration. And here in South Africa, drone aerial imagery is used to identify problems in crop yields in sustained periods of drought; machine learning algorithms have been designed to allow citizens to locate nearby mobile health-care clinics, and at this very moment, AI Expo Africa is happening — the largest business-focused artificial intelligence and data science community event in Africa.
These advances are important and exciting, but the picture of the impact of digital technologically has shadows, as well as light. New technologies are also exacerbating existing inequalities and this will worsen if they are not managed properly. A recent study by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) suggests that labour-saving technologies increase income inequality even if technological followers can adapt these technologies immediately. And a study by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, focusing on sub-Saharan Africa, shows that, while advances in mobile phones and digital ID have helped more people open a first financial account, disparities in account ownership by gender, education and income have widened.
For African countries to reap the full benefits of the fourth Industrial Revolution, national policy, laws and regulation should provide better direction and enabling environment for technological progress. A particular focus is needed to include and impact youth. Their involvement in policy formulation is critical. The continent’s large youth population presents an opportunity for tapping a source of creativity and innovation. At present, young people are often left without access to high-quality education investments and far too many are unemployed or underemployed. We, yet again, risk excluding the future potential of our continent.
In the United Nations, we are increasingly focusing on the fourth Industrial Revolution and its impact on our individual and collective challenges. The Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation — which was made up of 20 distinguished leaders in the digital field, 3 of them from Africa — submitted its report in June to the Secretary‑General. The Panel proposes a detailed set of recommendations aimed at closing digital divides and building digital capacities as an accelerator for Sustainable Development Goal implementation. It proposes the creation of multi-stakeholder and multilateral mechanisms to support the building of inclusive digital economies, digital human rights, trust and cybersecurity, and digital public goods, where ownership and benefits of data accrue locally. I believe its report provides an important blueprint for discussions on how best to manage new technologies.
In conclusion, in the course of our discussions today and tomorrow, we must address with more clarity, and in practical terms, how we operationalize the recommendations of the Panel to: achieve an inclusive digital economy and society where no one is left behind; develop the human and institutional capacity to harness the full potential of technology and close the divide; ensure that human rights and human agency are protected; build trust, security and stability; and finally, enhance global digital cooperation. I thank you.