With 'digital transformation,' UNDP seeks to stay relevant and add value

UNDP wants to lead the way in leveraging digital technology for development. Photo by: Dylan Lowthian / UNDP / CC BY-NC-ND

SAN FRANCISCO — The United Nations Development Programme has called its new digital strategy “the first of its kind in the UN system.” The organization seeks to digitally transform itself and better understand ways to support countries to leverage digital tools as drivers of development.

As technology rapidly transforms the way development is done, UNDP aims to serve as a model for not only keeping pace with these changes, but also leveraging these tools to advance progress on the Sustainable Development Goals.

“We’re trying to make that which UNDP can offer to a country highly relevant,” UNDP Administrator Achim Steiner told Devex. “In other words, we have to become ourselves digitally literate and understand how development and this digital future intersect.”

“We’re either going digital or we are going out of business. The world is changing, the needs of our partners are changing, so if we’re going to serve them well and achieve the SDGs, we need to change as well.”

— Robert Opp, chief digital officer, UNDP

Steiner said he hopes the strategy, launched in April 2019, will put UNDP in a position to support more programs like the flagship program of the Digital Bangladesh agenda, for example. Citizens who once had to travel for days to access services or documents held by the government, such as birth registration, land records, or life insurance, can now use digital access points for more than 150 services within 4 kilometers of where they live.

So far, the initiative, which began about 10 years ago, has saved Bangladeshi citizens 2 nearly billion days of time, more than $8 billion in costs, and more than 1 billion visits to government offices, according to the government’s public service innovation unit.

UNDP was a key partner in this effort, which started as an experiment before it became a national program, and stories like these are what inspired UNDP’s digital strategy to focus on scaling promising digital technology interventions.

Before launching a digital strategy, Steiner started by studying the organization.

“Digital was a very abstract concept at the country level, where 95% of UNDP’s staff work across the world,” he said.

There was experimentation and demand, but ideas and pilots were not scaling. For example, Carlo Ruiz, head of UNDP’s economic development unit in Ecuador, had experimented with a number of innovations to support the populations he worked with. But it was not until he saw a call from the office of the administrator asking country offices to put forward proposals that he pitched his idea to headquarters.

Now, Ruiz is working with colleagues in New York on blockchain for traceability, beginning with chocolate bars that allow consumers to support farmer livelihoods.

“The way we designed this was from a country office perspective,” Ruiz said. “How do we design something that will help us make progress on the SDGs but will also benefit us in terms of resource mobilization on country level given crisis of development financing?”

He said he hopes this project will demonstrate to the private sector how blockchain technology for traceability can be leveraged for social outcomes and financial returns across many products and markets.

UNDP is looking into ways the digital era might bring new forms of financing for the agency as a whole.

“What does the future of development look like in the way that we provide our services and what services are required?” said Joe Hooper, senior adviser for business models at UNDP.

He mentioned for example how government ministers who rely on UNDP policy advisers might in the future choose to pay for short-term, on-demand consulting rather than long- term project-based work.

In the roll-out of its digital strategy, UNDP is trying to strike a balance between two approaches, said Robert Opp, who joined the organization as chief digital officer in August 2019, coming from the World Food Programme.

A centralized approach often fails because they don’t involve people from the beginning or the demand isn’t there, he said. The “let a thousand flowers bloom” approach leads to fragmentation and duplication of resources, Opp continued. UNDP is going with a middle-ground approach that provides support rather than ownership or control.

“Someone needs to say, ‘I want this and I’m willing to put some time and energy into developing it,’ and then you provide the support to make the development and scaling process successful,” he said.

Ultimately, digital transformation is about people, he said, noting the importance of identifying digital champions within the organization.

To do this, UNDP created a course that individual staff can take at their own pace, provided an organization-wide webinar on digital strategy, and supported what the agency calls “digital lighthouse initiatives,” which are demonstration projects that help teams across the agency see how technology can impact their work.

Hooper said one challenge has been that some UNDP staff do not believe they are digitally savvy enough to take an active part in the digital transformation of the agency.

“What we have is a huge community of citizen developers who see a problem and are already using digital technology to try to solve that in their day to day work,” he said.

Hooper often has to explain to them that they do not need to be able to program or code but rather understand how to apply the technology they already use to address a problem in their work.

Steiner said UNDP works with other U.N. agencies as part of its digital strategy: “We simply have to catch up,” he said, speaking about UNDP, but also noting the need for change across other U.N. agencies. “It’s a collective ambition.”

Each agency brings its own unique lens to the potential of technology to accelerate progress on the SDGs, he said, mentioning collaboration with UNICEF around blockchain as one example.

Months into his new role, Opp continues to think about ways low- and middle-income countries can benefit from the use of digital tools, as Bangladesh has proven possible with Digital Bangladesh. But he emphasized that before UNDP can add value for its country partners, it has to digitally transform itself.

“We’re either going digital or we are going out of business,” Opp said. “The world is changing, the needs of our partners are changing, so if we’re going to serve them well and achieve the SDGs, we need to change as well.”

About the author

  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.