On the Road to the SDGs: Progress from the Field

The Chinese philosopher Laozi said that “a journey of a thousand miles begin with a single step.” The international community is taking a long journey towards achieving the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030 but often, important steps taken in New York or Geneva seem far away from the realities of the developing world.

This was not the case earlier this month. In Dar es Salaam and Arusha, Tanzania, the progressive views from the Government of Tanzania and the African telecommunications sectors convinced me that the future is closer than we imagine. My week started at the GSMA’s Mobile 360 Africa conference and ended in northeastern Tanzania visiting health clinics across the Arusha region.

A few days later, I was with these young mothers as they waited to receive early childhood immunizations for their infants and toddlers. Both they and the health center staff were delighted that tasks that used to be completed on nights and weekends, could now be accomplished in minutes and with higher accuracy thanks to four years of hard work by the government, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the international NGO, PATH. To date, together they have equipped over 285 health centers with tablets and an electronic immunization registry that can register patients, identify what vaccine doses they need, and ensure that supplies are on hand so that no mother’s visit to the center is wasted. As a result, more than 80,000 children are registered in the Electronic Immunization Registry.  The BID Initiative is entering its fifth year of operation and its progress will continue as the Government of Tanzania and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, bolstered by the promising results in Arusha, have committed to extend the system nationwide. Building on this work, DIAL is entering a partnership with BID to determine where we can co-mingle non-personally identifiable data with operator level data to answer epidemiological questions that facility data alone cannot reveal.

Nurses scan child health cards at a facility in Tanzania. (Photo credit: PATH/Trevor Snapp)

GSMA’s Mobile 360 conference in Dar brought together operators, governments and multilateral actors to discuss how collaboration could support technology efforts to achieve both profit and social good. Tanzania, under its Vision 2025 plan and the overall leadership of its president, H.E. John Magufuli, has committed its considerable talent and resources to moving to a semi-industrialized economy with technology as a key underpinning. This commitment was demonstrated from the opening moments of the GSMA event, in which the vice president of Tanzania, H.E. Samia Suluhu, spoke eloquently of the need for strong public/private partnerships and technology collaborations. She noted that only by working together could Tanzania realize its “Vision 2025” plan and its commitments to the SDG 2030 goals.  In her words, making mobiles work for Sub-Saharan Africa means that the 60% of Tanzanian citizens who live in rural areas must have reliable internet access in order to increase access to health, agriculture and education services, not to mention access to credit. Today, one third of Tanzanians have a formal bank account but 44% have access to mobile money. The adoption rate is impressive given that mobile money was first introduced in Tanzania in 2008. Yet despite this progress, women are 17% less likely to own a mobile phone and are being left behind, particularly as young mothers.

Each of these steps alone is not enough to achieve Tanzania’s SDG goals but cumulatively, they point in a direction that we can all support to ensure that the journey to 2030 comes even earlier than planned.