Opinion: How USAID's digital strategy aims to strengthen an open, secure, and inclusive future

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A registered nurse uses mHero to access information about health emergencies in Brewerville, Liberia. Photo by: Sarah Grile / USAID / CC BY-NC

As the global development community works to deliver lifesaving assistance and relay crucial information in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the critical role of digital technology is undeniable. Health care workers are diagnosing and treating patients via telemedicine; brick-and-mortar retailers are being forced to move online; and individuals across the world are receiving up-to-date vital information about the pandemic’s impacts.

These virtual communications and transactions are all possible due to expansive digital infrastructure — in the U.S. and around the globe. Unfortunately, while many of us take for granted our access to digital technology such as smartphones and the internet, over 3.5 billion people — nearly half of the world's population — do not have access to the internet.

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To close this digital divide, the U.S. Agency for International Development is working with governments and the private sector to develop policy frameworks, national broadband strategies, and tools like universal service funds to extend affordable and secure broadband internet services to underserved communities.

The agency’s first-ever Digital Strategy, released this past April, charts a vision for development and humanitarian assistance in the world’s rapidly evolving digital landscape and aims to help position the agency to help countries respond to the COVID-19 outbreak — and better prepare for future ones.

Countries like Kenya and Indonesia have seen billions of dollars in investment in digital infrastructure thanks to these initiatives, which have provided countless individuals with secure and reliable online services.

While years of investment and the work of global and community partners have dramatically increased the number of people online, there is more to be done. Making sure that more people can access inclusive, secure, and open digital ecosystems has the effect of accumulating serious humanitarian, health, and economic benefits in the present and future. Already, we have seen that digital health information systems — including those supported by USAID and our partners — are assisting nurses and doctors in their response efforts to COVID-19.

No one can be left behind. Every person needs access to digital tools and services while being empowered and informed on how to safely benefit.

Currently, the government of Liberia is using mHero, a two-way information-sharing platform developed during the West Africa Ebola outbreak of 2014-2016 to communicate with front-line health workers. Thanks to mHero’s interoperable, flexible design, and consistent with the Principles for Digital Development, the government has repurposed the system to send weekly updates on COVID-19 to the field and to support early case detection. These lifesaving innovations are possible not just in Liberia but in all countries, and it is our responsibility to continue to promote products like this in emerging markets across the world.

Digital development can provide communities with immense economic value, too. In Peru, a USAID private sector partnership with Cisco and telecommunications company Yachay, which began in 2017, has allowed for the creation of numerous technology centers in areas where only 17.7% of households have access to the internet. One local artisan named Willian Ojanama was able to use his new connection to attract more than 2,000 foreign tourists to his region each year, creating a steady stream of income and well-paying jobs for local families.

These are powerful examples of the benefits of supporting and strengthening digital infrastructure around the globe — but our work is far from over.

Building on these past successes, USAID will continue to develop programs focused on women’s empowerment, cybersecurity, digital health, digital literacy, financial inclusion, innovative technology, and information sharing. But most importantly, this new Digital Strategy will aim to help countries join the digital revolution and ensure they are on a path to self-reliance and prosperity.

No one can be left behind. Every person needs access to digital tools and services while being empowered and informed on how to safely benefit. With the power of digital technology, we will continue to save lives, lift millions out of poverty, strengthen democratic governance, and help people emerge from humanitarian crises and into progress beyond assistance.

As the world moves online, partnerships between aid agencies, governments, donors, and the private sector are essential to ensure a future in which digital technology promotes inclusive growth, fosters resilient and democratic societies, and empowers all — especially the most vulnerable.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Bonnie Glick

    Bonnie Glick is the deputy administrator of the United States Agency for International Development, or USAID.