15 February 2021

More Must Be Done to Close Digital Divide, End Poverty, Speakers Say, as Social Development Commission Continues Debate

The Commission for Social Development resumed its general discussion in virtual format today, with representatives of Member States emphasizing the growing importance of digital technology in the global quest to overcome poverty, achieve sustainable development and build better lives for all.

Many speakers noted how digital technology has made it possible to overcome some of the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, but several also stressed the importance of doing more to close the digital divide — particularly in remote and rural areas, and among women, youth, the elderly and disabled persons — in this Decade of Action to deliver on the Sustainable Development Goals.

Some delegates told the 46-member Commission that wealthy countries must continue to make good on their commitment to set aside 0.7 per cent of their gross national income for official development assistance.  Others praised the manner in which digital technology made it possible for Governments to better distribute social benefits to their citizens amid the world’s worst pandemic in a century.

The representative of Afghanistan, aligning herself with the “Group of 77” developing countries and China, said that as a landlocked least developed country and one grappling with conflict, it suffers from severely limited resources and requires more international support and solidarity.  Calling for efforts to strengthen the capacity of the Technology Bank for the Least Developed Countries, she spotlighted the threat posed by the Taliban and other terrorist groups — which continuously target the nation’s telecommunication facilities — as one major challenge.  The year 2021 also poses great opportunities for Afghanistan, whose rate of Internet access is growing steadily and currently stands at 20 per cent.  “Afghanistan is committed to seizing this opportunity,” she stressed, citing efforts to explore how digital technologies can best be harnessed for the country’s overwhelmingly young population as well as a way to strengthen systems of governance and the rule of law.  Discussions are also under way to explore Afghanistan’s potential to act as a land-bridge for fibre optic cables to connect Central and South Asia, she said.

The representative of Sudan, noting that her country is entering a new era, said that the transitional Government is committed to service delivery through the application of digital technology in those institutions that play a role in social development.  Among other things, it has introduced a direct cash support programme for thousands of families, issued electronic wallet cards to public service pensioners and launched a national project to advance the status of rural women.  Sudan highly values training and looks forward to exchanging experiences with other countries.  She went on to underscore the assistance of United Nations entities, including the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), in responding to the needs of people in fragile and conflict situations and ensuring their participation in public life.

Romania’s representative, associating himself with the European Union, called for a global partnership of Governments and relevant stakeholders to ensure inclusive and fair access to digital technologies.  Romania scores very well among European Union member States in terms of connectivity and its tech industry is growing fast, with a high proportion of women employed in the digital sector.  He warned, however, that the use of digital technology with disregard for international law and norms — including human rights and humanitarian law — risks triggering exclusion and inequality, human rights abuses, fake information and cybercrime.  “We cannot reap the full benefits of the digital age without mobilizing global cooperation to reduce potential harms,” he said.

The representative of Israel said that his country, inspired by the Jewish concept of tikkun olam or making the world a better place, is always seeking ways to heal an imperfect world.  During the pandemic, an Israeli student developed an app that enables tens of thousands of senior citizens to request help from young people with such tasks as food and pharmacy shopping.  Another app, called TikTalk, helps children with speech and language challenges through interactive games on an electronic tablet device, which then remotely updates speech therapists on their progress.  Israeli entrepreneurs are also developing a variety of online games and exercises aimed at children with disabilities such as cerebral palsy and autism spectrum disorder.

The representative of Jamaica, associating himself with the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), said that his country responded to COVID-19 by speeding up its transition to the electronic distribution of social benefits, which has produced greater operational efficiencies.  The pandemic has also spurred further exploration of an unemployment insurance programme that would build resilience among workers and their families.  Looking forward, he called for a rethink of the nature of global cooperation so that the States can not only recover stronger, but also position themselves to better weather future systemic shocks.  Persistent global problems, such as the pandemic’s impact on global value chains, require broad-based cooperation to achieve strategic global solutions, he said.

The representative of Nepal said that during the pandemic, digital technologies have been instrumental to deliver essential services, “but we still have to do more to make digital technologies accessible and affordable for all”.  Guided by its vision of a “prosperous Nepal and happy Nepal”, the country is developing its digital infrastructure through various Government initiatives and public-private partnerships that create jobs and spur economic growth.  Disadvantaged groups — including women, indigenous communities, Dalits and persons with disabilities — remain at the heart of social security measures.  He called on the international community and development partners to enhance their support to defeat the digital divide and achieve a just, prosperous and inclusive society.

The representative of Viet Nam, associating himself with the Group of 77, and emphasizing the importance of digital education and science and technology skills, said that Governments should address the lack of efficient and affordable digital technologies infrastructure, especially in rural and remote areas.  Development policies should strike a balance between short-term and long-term objectives while also ensuring economic resilience, social inclusion and environmental sustainability.  In the post-pandemic period, comprehensive development plans must support businesses and ensure social welfare, especially for the poor and vulnerable.  Stressing the essential role of international cooperation, he called on developed countries to fulfil their commitment to earmark 0.7 per cent of their gross national income as official development assistance (ODA) for developing countries.

The representative of the United Arab Emirates said that easy and affordable access to digital technologies is now a precondition for sustainable development.  Many people have become accustomed to accessing basic services through digital means, but COVID-19 has exposed an ever-expanding digital gap that must be addressed.  She underscored her country’s adoption of new and emerging technologies as a foundation for its social and economic development and to improve quality of life.  In 2017, the United Arab Emirates appointed its first Minister responsible for artificial intelligence, whose portfolio was expanded in 2020 to include the digital economy and remote work.  She went on to note her country’s readiness to share its experiences with the international community.

The representative of Malawi, associating himself with the Group of 77 and the African Group, said that access to digital technologies in his country remains limited, with most rural areas lacking connectivity.  But there has been progress in some areas, with the level of financial inclusion growing to 30 per cent since the launch of a digital payment platform in 2015.  In response to the pandemic, access to primary and higher education has been expanded through online and distance learning.  The Government has also intensified its efforts to promote the use of social space to enable visually impaired persons and members of the deaf community to access information, he added.

The representative of India, associating himself with the Group of 77, said that his country’s progress towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals is crucial, as it is home to 17 per cent of the world’s population.  India’s social development agenda, as laid out by the Government, largely focuses on the deployment of digital technologies to alleviate poverty, provide better health services, promote agricultural reforms, enhance cooperative federalism, ensure targeting of subsidies and provide time-bound delivery of Government services.  India’s biometric-based unique identification system now covers more than 95 per cent of the population, he said, adding that as a step towards universal health coverage, the country is implementing the world’s largest digitally operated health-care programme.  As part of its COVID-19 vaccination drive, the Government has developed a mobile app with information about target groups for vaccination, vaccine availability and other logistics-related data.

The representative of Germany, associating himself with the European Union, said that digital technologies must be made to work for all.  Equal access in a digital society means lowering access barriers for public services, equipping homes with the digital tools that older people need to live independently and ending cyberviolence against women and girls.  Germany remains committed to supporting developing countries in harnessing the potential of digital technologies.  Two youth delegates emphasized the importance of ensuring equal opportunities for all to access digital technologies.  “Any progress in digitization is unfair as long as it does not benefit all,” they said, adding that digital technologies provide a unique opportunity to increase youth participation for socially just change.

The representative of Turkmenistan, noting that his country was elected to the Economic and Social Council for the 2019-2021 period, said it has incorporated the Sustainable Development Goals into its national agenda.  As part of its economic policy, industrial innovation plans aim to harness the potential of Turkmenistan’s raw materials and commodities and to reduce the effects of industrial waste.  The goal is to protect traditional sociocultural systems.  The Constitution, the guarantor of stability, meanwhile contains provisions on the universally recognized principles of international law.  Working with UNICEF, Turkmenistan is implementing an action plan to protect children’s rights until 2022, he said, also citing an initiative to empower women.

The representative of the Dominican Republic, recalling that the Inter-American Development Bank recommended that the region invest in efforts to reduce the digital divide, said “we risk seeing job losses and economic suffering”.  She called for investment in new technologies and new capacities.  Strengthening digital access means that State bodies must work with civil society to gather data on vulnerable families.  Noting that the Government is working with the beneficiary system to harness synergies, she said plans are also afoot to increase access to digital services.  She also pointed to a “chat box”, allowing the Government to understand citizens’ concerns, and the provision of technical training in digital tools.  The Dominican Republic can increase its productive capacity and job access only by increasing workers’ digital competence, notably through public-private partnerships, she asserted.

The representative of Senegal said the United Nations encouraged States throughout the pandemic to take the measures required.  With that in mind, Senegal held an inclusive dialogue and launched a holistic response plan, aiming to strengthen the health sector, safeguard economic stability and secure access to fuel, medical, pharmaceutical and other products.  “We must make better use of the opportunities provided to us by digital technologies,” he said, underscoring Senegal’s commitment to economic recovery and adoption of an adjusted plan of priorities for 2021-2023.  The country has placed particular emphasis on food, health and pharmaceutical sovereignty, as well as on access to housing, development of the tourism sector, and above all, digitization, he said, citing, in particular, e-platforms for managing health appointments for women.

Youth representatives of Bulgaria said the inclusion of young people, as a “perpetual force of change”, is imperative, noting that the digital age is providing new opportunities for education and labour.  Educational institutions remain sanctuaries of knowledge and skills, thanks to the Internet.  Noting that UNICEF found that one third of students worldwide lack access to remote education, due to the lack of access to the Internet, computers and mobile devices, they pointed out, on the other hand, that the cost of computers and mobile devices for education is lowering every week.  Disposal of these devices is a waste that can be reallocated to those in need.  “We are alarmed by the gravity of the situation, yet it is up to all of us to change the situation,” they said, calling on all States to ensure access to the necessary technologies.

The representative of Qatar, associating herself with the Group of 77, described her country’s comprehensive response to COVID-19, noting that various ministries provided services without interruption by offering technological solutions — initiatives that facilitated teleworking and access to social services.  Noting that remote learning, which existed before the pandemic, allowed for continued education, she said 75 million Qatari rials were invested to ensure the continuity of employment.  Some 3,000 young people from several Arab countries also participated in internships in various areas.  Qatar continues to uphold its commitments under the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and received “first prize” for facilitating digital access for both persons with disabilities and older persons.  Through a dedicated centre, Qatar has implemented 37 projects allowing these populations to maintain digital access.

The representative of Italy underscored the need to ensure that the COVID-19 vaccine is considered a global public good, based on the principles of fairness, equity and inclusion, values that must also relate to medical equipment.  Noting that social inclusion must at the heart of national, regional and global efforts to “recover better”, she said “the role of digital technology is bound to be key”, from allowing a minimum level of medical consultations, to guaranteeing access to essential social services.  It is essential to reduce age, geographic and other gaps in order to ensure digital access.  She called for strengthening and expanding “connectivity nets” and providing support to those most impacted by the digital revolution, helping them to retrain and direct themselves towards other activities.  Pointing to the connection between young people’s social inclusion and digitalization, two youth delegates stressed:  “Let’s not waste this chance.”

The representative of Pakistan, associating with the Group of 77, said COVID-19 likely has forced millions of people back into poverty.  As such, developing countries must provide fiscal space through stimulus packages and debt relief so they can focus on recovery.  Both money and vaccines must be equitably developed to prevent massive human suffering and to revive the global economy, he said, citing the Prime Minister’s five-point response plan that calls for equitable vaccine distribution, debt relief and the creation of special drawing rights, among other priorities.  Noting that developing countries have the chance to leapfrog into modern development paradigms by taking advantage of artificial intelligence, quantum computing and robotics, he described the “Digital Pakistan” initiative, which is anchored in equal access to the Internet, e-government that digitizes intra-Government processes, digital literacy and innovation to provide an enabling environment for start-ups to flourish.

The representative of the Republic of Korea said addressing the problems of poverty and inequality cannot be solved without innovation.  He urged countries to take advantage of digital technologies by reducing their negative social impacts.  The Republic of Korea is working to transform into a smarter, cleaner economy, and to promote growth in various industries.  The Government is establishing big data platforms, making integrated data more accessible to the public.  Other plans are under way to expand non-contact public services, including document provision.  Smart government will also use 5G and block chain technologies, he said, noting that in the area of education, children will be able to engage in remote learning through big data and access online learning alongside augmented and virtual reality programmes.  The Government is working to provide greater benefits to broader populations and boost economic stability for the vulnerable, he added.

The representative of Paraguay said the Government established cash transfer programmes to ensure food security to the most vulnerable, including those who lost their jobs due to COVID-19.  It also initiated an economic recovery plan — “Let’s Lift Paraguay” — focused on social protection, investment in jobs and credit for development.  He underscored the need to close the digital gap, noting that the pandemic has advanced Paraguay’s use of technology in the areas of health care, education, production and services.  The Government is working to consolidate such advances, in keeping with the Sustainable Development Goals, notably by working with cooperation programmes.  As a member of the Economic and Social Council Commission on Science and Technology, he said Paraguay encourages continued assessment of technological change in efforts to fulfil the Sustainable Development Goals.

The representative of Costa Rica stressed that decades of social development gains have been undone by the pandemic.  He recalled commitments made under the Copenhagen Declaration on Social Development and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, noting the threats of widening inequalities within and between countries and of a yawning digital divide.  As 60 per cent of people around the world lacking Internet access live in rural areas, he said this reality calls for refashioning policies to harness the full potential of digital technologies.  In Costa Rica, he cited a national telecoms plan, which focuses on ownership of information and communications technologies (ICT), and initiatives to increase access, such as the “Homes Online” programme, which provided equipment and grants to ensure that 138,000 families could gain online access.  He called for incorporating environmental aspects into social development policies.

The representative of the United States said the pandemic underscored the need to reform the Commission’s overloaded agenda and overlapping work with United Nations bodies, citing the topics of youth, older persons, persons with disabilities and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) as those more effectively addressed through expert bodies and mechanisms, including the Economic and Social Council Youth Forum.  He recommended that the Commission consider negotiating a single thematic outcome document each year on a main theme that is not already the purview of other United Nations bodies, voicing support for the current practice of starting informal negotiations prior to each annual session’s opening to help alleviate time constraints.  “It is incumbent upon us to manage the Commission’s focus and work so it can respond effectively,” he said.

The representative of Iraq, associating with the Group of 77, recalled that the Copenhagen Declaration describes the family as the basic cell within any society.  In one of his recent reports, the Secretary-General reaffirmed that COVID-19 has shed light on the important role of families as both economic pillars and care providers.  Family policies, therefore, will be pivotal for fulfilling the Sustainable Development Goals, he said, noting that Iraq was forced to close schools in order to protect students from COVID-19.  Yet, the Government sought to facilitate learning.  In partnership with UNICEF, it provided alternative curricula and online platforms to support student learning, he said, adding that to improve Internet service, the Ministry of Communications increased the capacity of international and local networks, without changing the price for end users.

The representative of North Macedonia, associating himself with the European Union and underscoring the principles of tolerance, fairness, multiculturalism and intercultural communication, said his country has adopted numerous digital services to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.  He cited the “My Health” application in this context.  In the area of education, a recommendation by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and UNICEF was incorporated into the national education strategy to foster digitalization of the system.  Special attention has also been given to public administration, in part to achieve in budget savings.  “There cannot be true equality without gender equality,” he continued, citing a new law on preventing discrimination, and another on the termination of pregnancy, which ensures that women have timely access to health-care providers.  As a rare non-European Union country, North Macedonia also introduced a youth commitment, characterized by the “Start-up Village” initiative, which offers young people the opportunity to start their own businesses.

Also speaking today were representatives of Bangladesh, Colombia, Turkey, Cabo Verde, Sri Lanka, Chile, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Serbia, Nicaragua, Monaco, Thailand, Côte d’Ivoire and Oman.

For information media. Not an official record.