As most people in the international development community know, Samantha Power, former U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations under President Barack Obama, was nominated and officially sworn in as the 19th Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) on May 3.
During her confirmation hearing testimony, she acknowledged the longstanding priorities of USAID that would remain at the fore, such as women’s empowerment, food security, education, and global health, but also cited four particularly pressing and consequential global issues on which USAID would focus in the years ahead:
The COVID-19 pandemic
Conflict and state collapse
Thinking about these priorities and what they mean for development work in the coming years, I thought about how digital solutions fit into this picture. Though not called out specifically in her testimony, digital technologies will serve a critical role in ensuring the success and effectiveness of these efforts.
To better illustrate the role of digital in achieving these outcomes, I wanted to highlight just a few ways in which digital solutions and considerations come into play in each of these crises as described in her speech:
“The COVID-19 pandemic: With decades of development gains shattered by COVID-19, imperiling progress on everything from food security to gender equality and access to education, USAID’s support to partners will be vital for recovery, including by building more robust and durable health infrastructure for the future.”
The importance of digital solutions is perhaps most obvious in the response to COVID-19 and the far-reaching consequences of the pandemic. From online learning, remote work, online shopping, and case tracking and management, the benefits of digital access, inclusion, and tool usage are immeasurable. My colleague Susannah Horton delved more deeply into the consequences facing those not able to access these benefits, known as the digital divide, earlier in the pandemic.
A graphic from the USAID Honduras Asegurando project demonstrates program reach during the pandemic using ICT. Graphic by Lucas King.
A World Bank Blog—2020 Year in Review: The impact of COVID-19 in 12 charts— discussed the impact of COVID-19 on various aspects of development, including the strain on business and jobs, particularly micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs). The blog notes that more than a third of companies worldwide increased their use of digital technology to adapt to the crisis—tools such as e-commerce sites to present products, social media for customer engagement and advertising, and digital payment platforms for transactions.
“Climate change: With the surge in droughts, storms, food shortages, and climate-associated humanitarian emergencies, USAID can help countries become more resilient while supporting their efforts to reduce carbon emissions.”
The role of digital technologies in preventing, tracking, and mitigating climate change, and assisting those most directly affected by the change, are numerous. From apps allowing farmers to monitor crop growth via satellite imagery to citizen crowd-sourcing to visualize air quality indicators across a population, digital technologies are critical in ensuring we are making the correct choices, both at a personal and policy level.
Our Alejandro Solis’ work on Centro Clima—a central online platform that aggregates climate information from and for a variety of users and sectors in Central America—is a prime example of the power of digital for information sharing and decision making.
“Conflict and state collapse: With more conflicts occurring today than at any point since the end of the Cold War, USAID assistance will continue to mitigate suffering, while working with U.S. diplomats and our international partners to address the root causes of such crises.”
“Traditional” conflict—involving physical weaponry, battlefields, and uniformed soldiers—no longer represents the bulk of interstate conflict in today’s world. Cyberwarfare and disinformation campaigns are instead gaining ground, while misinformation may help contribute to conflict and instability, even if not intentionally spread (misinformation does not include an intent to deceive; disinformation does. Full definitions here.)
The impact of false information spread online is evident in the United States and beyond. Much has been written about the role of misinformation in encouraging the January 6 Capitol Riot here in the United States by Americans believing, falsely, that the 2020 presidential election had been fraudulent.
Cyber attacks, though often hidden from public view, are nonetheless damaging. Threatening financial systems, energy grids, water systems, and telecommunications, among other types of critical infrastructure, the consequences of these kinds of attacks can be extremely costly and far-reaching. For example, the consequences of the 2017 Russian cyberattack against companies in Ukraine—known as NotPetya—is impossible to definitively calculate, but has been blamed for an estimated $10 billion worth of damage worldwide, according to The Economist.
Chart from Carnegie Endowment for International Peace comparing estimated costs of global cyber attacks against U.S. natural disasters.
“Democratic backsliding: With freedom declining around the world for the 15th year in a row, USAID’s democracy, rights, anti-corruption, and governance programming must nimbly support democratic and civil society actors as they push back against creeping authoritarianism and seek to build lasting democratic institutions.”
A recent talk I attended hosted by the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy discussed China’s strategies to influence populations abroad via digital means, such as using social media to promote positive perceptions of the country while capitalizing on opportunities to degrade perceptions of the United States. The topic relates back to the conversation about misinformation and disinformation, but also to the role of digital communication platforms and the importance of free speech and digital rights and freedoms as part of a thriving democracy.
Additionally, digital tools such as platforms to streamline communication, connect like-minded thinkers, or circulate petitions (see more here) have become a crucial platform for civil society organizations, political parties, activists, and everyday citizens to engage and organize. The ability of individuals and organizations to effectively use these tools, maximize reach, protect themselves from cyber threats, and recognize false information is a critical part of maintaining a fair and transparent government.
Why is it worth highlighting these examples? By acknowledging the role, even cursorily, that digital technologies and platforms play in these crises, we can help ensure that digital tools and solutions receive the proper prioritization in discussions of how to address these crises, as well as recognize and prepare for the threats associated with increasing digital uptake and connectivity.