Looking back, as we look forward: A letter from Kate Wilson, CEO

Below is the introductory letter from the Digital Impact Alliance’s 2019 Annual Memo, released yesterday in our newsletter. This letter frames DIAL’s work over the past year and looks ahead at what still needs to be done in the world of digital technology. Read the rest of the Annual Memo for updates on our programmatic work in 2019. For regular updates on our work, be sure to sign up for our newsletter.

Digital technologies can help everyone, everywhere, access the services they need more quickly and cheaply. They can provide identities to people seeking services; anticipate where disaster-affected communities will need assistance; and communicate with people in remote areas. Done well, digital systems can make tasks and data analysis easy and routine, making algorithmic predictions and instant communication with millions as simple as sending an email or placing a phone call. And done right, these technology systems should empower and protect people, making it easier for them to connect with others, get access to services, educate and feed their families, and exercise their civil liberties. 

Five years ago, DIAL was created because the transformative promise of easy-to-use technology had not yet been fulfilled. Since then, exciting progress has been made. Governments are adopting e-governance frameworks and exploring whole-of-government approaches to ICT architecture and procurement. New donor alignment is building in digital health, finance, education, and ID systems. A focus on digital public goods for ICT development is becoming mainstream, in particular through momentum from the United Nations High-level Panel for Digital Cooperation. Governments are beginning to embrace a whole-of-government approach to ICT procurement, and the digital ecosystem is awakening to the exciting potential of data for policymaking.

How the global community invests in digital technology will make or break our achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals and will be vital to our ability to meet the mounting challenges of the coming decades.

Kate Wilson, CEO

But our ecosystem remains fragmented, and many problems cited in our design documents still hold true. Digital product and policy development continue to be stuck in sector silos and early-stage prototypes, rather than transitioning to a more holistic strategy to invest in transformative market enablers like cross-cutting platforms, common data standards, and sustainable business models. Investment in foundational infrastructure is lacking, particularly in local institutions in the Global South. Basic telecommunications and energy infrastructure remain key challenges to rolling out digital services in rural areas and making them accessible to the most vulnerable. Technology solutions used within humanitarian and development markets still don’t consider the true cost of scaling.

We urgently need collective action to make this leap. Investing in the “institutionalization of digital” will make or break our achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and will be vital to our ability to meet the mounting challenges of the coming decades. Almost 1 billion people throughout the world lack any form of legally recognized identification, and about 1.7 billion adults remain unbanked. The next five years will see unprecedented heat emergencies, intense storms, and unpredictable meteorological cycles. These changes will fuel climate displacement and conflict, of which vulnerable people and low-income countries (LICs) will bear the brunt. 

Multilateralism is under immense geopolitical pressure, although the need to cooperate has never been greater. The rise of technology giants will test the sovereignty of the nation state in regulating digital spaces. While emerging technologies — such as the internet of things (IoT), 5G, distributed ledger technologies, robotics, and automation — all may be the proven technologies of five years from now, we are far from cementing our practice around the technologies we already have. And 3.3 billion people who live in areas covered by mobile broadband are not using mobile internet services,8 meaning that if current trends hold, more than 40% of the population in low- and middle-income countries will still be offline in 2025.9

In short, there is more to do — together. 

A unique mandate to connect digital actors and efforts

When I joined DIAL as CEO in 2016, it was already clear that continuing to address all of these problems using the current approaches was not going to be sufficient. The scale of the problems is too great, and the technology is moving too fast. No one actor can do this alone. Instead, the sector needed a neutral, knowledgeable convener that could gather the collective issues, prioritize and test new approaches, and work to unify our fragmented ecosystems under common principles and approaches. 

Over the last four years, we have invested in these structural issues to develop new answers to technical problems (e.g., open source standards and products); design curricula and run standards-based training across four continents (e.g., Principles for Digital Development); and conduct out-of-the-box research to break impasses between the public and private sectors (e.g., data analytics, messaging platforms, capacity, financing), all of which show the way to a new era of digital cooperation in which citizens, governments and private enterprises benefit. 

To accomplish this, we set up a new type of organization, one that can respond to ecosystem needs and evolve over time as digital development priorities change and gaps emerge. Our early years focused on building the organization and gathering foundational insights through research and experimentation that could help us connect digital actors and initiatives and address the sector’s most pressing needs.

Working together, we can realize the promise of digital cooperation to deliver the SDGs

Kate Wilson, CEO

A transitional year: Delivering impact and charting a new course 

As we enter year five, it’s clear we need to move beyond simply connecting digital technology efforts and instead choreograph collective investment in digital public goods; support country-level, cross-sector engagement and capacity; responsibly explore ways to utilize nontraditional data for development policymaking; and support the Principles for Digital Development to grow as user-driven, living standards that can ground global digital development agendas. We’re committed to sharing what we’ve learned as white-label practitioner resources so that other partner networks and organizations can take on, adapt, and disseminate it more broadly under their own brands, driving impact far beyond DIAL’s reach alone. 

In this memo, we reiterate our vision and impact model for driving distributed change in the digital ecosystem (section 2). A summary of our programmatic areas, their progress this year and their plans for FY20 constitute section 3. Finally, we take you through the transitions we are navigating in FY20, including our work to ensure that the learning and evidence we have amassed in our first phase is accessible and usable by the digital ecosystem, and we highlight some early themes we see emerging over the next five years (section 4).

This letter would not be complete without my heartfelt thanks to the team for their hard work; to our Board and our hosts at the UN Foundation for their support; and to our donors for their continued belief in and commitment to our shared digital transformation agenda. Working together, we can realize the promise of digital cooperation to deliver the SDGs.