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Keynote Address ICEGOV2018 Conference

Excellencies, ladies and gentleman,

I am honoured today to deliver the keynote at this 11th International Conference on the Theory and Practice of Electronic Governance, focused on Transforming Digital Governance for Sustainable and Resilient Societies. Ireland’s development transformation over the last 30 years, and the role that ICT played within that, provides lessons for us all. We have proven that it is possible to leapfrog into the post-industrial age, by investing in our human capacity, and stimulating investment. As the Minister with responsibility for International Development and the Diaspora (or the Global Irish family, as we call them), issues of ICT are increasingly at the heart of what I do. Indeed, as the local representative for an area in the West of Ireland, where the ICT industry has played a vital role in local economic development, it is relevant closer to home too.

Co-chaired by Ireland, the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals provide the international framework for all of our work on international development. Indeed, there is even a specific Goal related to ICT. This aims to Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialisation and foster innovation. Kenya, who were our co-chairs in the SDG process, should be an inspiration to many. Kenya’s experience embodies how ICT can unlock the potential of the current generation, for transformational change within future generations, delivering against all of the Sustainable Development Goals. For this reason, it is increasingly important that the role of ICT is captured right across our work, as indeed it has proven to play a catalytic role in a broad range of contexts and challenges.

At the heart of ICT is the basic principle that smooth flows of communication and information is a global public good. Experience in international development reinforces this: access to information and knowledge can empower poor people and transform their lives; decision-makers can make better informed decisions on public expenditure if they have more information about where poor people are and what their needs are. And information can help build accountability to the citizen, which creates incentives to do the right thing.

Good governance is at the heart of delivering on the Sustainable Development Goals. Transparent, accountable and responsive government systems have proven time and again to deliver high-quality services, manage risk, and stimulate prosperity. However, even when political leadership and accountable institutions are in place, the challenges to good governance can sometimes seem overwhelming. Many least developed countries, some of which are our partner countries, struggle with poor infrastructure and limited capacity for outreach to citizens, especially in very remote areas. Here the ‘leapfrogging’ benefits of ICT can help Governments overcome these challenges, and reach the citizen more efficiently and effectively for a range of purposes. There are a range of areas where this transformative role is already being seen. By 2016, more than 50% of the population in Least Developed Countries had access to mobile broadband signals. Across the sectors, ICT is being used in the delivery of essential services, stimulating value chains, and making aid programmes more efficient and accountable.

Delivery of basic services is at the heart of the relationship between citizen and state, and here a range of web-based platform applications have been used to improve efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability. In primary healthcare, e-health management information systems are in place in Northern Nigeria and Rwanda among other countries. In addition to improving efficiency and effectiveness, the power of such applications for disease surveillance is vital in managing public health risks, and building accountability for service delivery. Ireland has supported partners like the Clinton Health Access Initiative in Mozambique whose technological solutions allow for simplified HIV testing, simplified logistics, and sophisticated data management.

In education, the opportunities are limitless. Ireland has supported innovative pilots like the ‘School in a Box’ research with the Institute of Arts Design and Technology, in Mozambique. This uses iPads to boost the quality of classroom interaction. A partnership between University College Dublin and Wolayita Soddo University in Ethiopia is exploring how they can make lectures and other material available straight from Belfield in Dublin to students in Soddo, a remote town in Southern Ethiopia.

As founder of EXCITED, the Digital Learning Movement, I am especially passionate about the role of technology in education, and the power of tech to generate jobs for young people.

Social Protection is a vital part of the citizen-state compact, and a mechanism we support through our international aid programme, Irish Aid, to directly address poverty and income inequality. Social Protection can help meet basic consumption gaps for extremely poor people, preventing them from engaging in ‘distress’ behaviour such as taking their kids out of school, cutting down on calorie intake or migrating. Another important role of social protection is helping the poorest to withstand shocks when they come, such as a drought. Here the ability to make payments to people directly, quickly, and in a way that enables women to get their hands on the money, is vital. And here ICT has played a transformative role.

Ireland has supported two pilots using mobile banking technology for disbursement of social protection payments, in Malawi and Ethiopia. The Government of Malawi now hopes to use e-payment delivery solutions for all of its social protection cash transfer programmes. We can now deliver our support directly into the pockets of the poorest people in our partner countries, particularly the elderly, poor female headed households and those with chronic illnesses. In addition to being more efficient and effective, the existence of such technology, enables us as donors to support the poorest with a high degree of confidence that monies won’t go astray. This is vitally important for the Irish taxpayer, especially as we make the case for more aid to more poor contexts.

Mobile devices are growing in importance as a means to improve agricultural extension and provide support and weather information to farmers. Working alongside the Ryan Institute here in NUIG, the Climate, Agriculture and Food Security Programme of the International Agriculture Research system has innovated in this area, with Irish Aid funding. The programme has provided climate information services to 20,000 farmers in Tanzania and Malawi, using a range of media including SMS. In Uganda and Kenya, the same programme undertook rigorous testing of ICT’s role in providing information to farmers, including testing the impacts differentiated between men and women. There is still so much to learn about how best to harness the new technology for most effective outreach and information provision, but a huge amount of creativity is going into understanding this better and getting it right.

More and more we are able to make use of technology in providing emergency response to disasters. Innovations in e-health platforms proved invaluable in making the Sierra Leone Ebola response more effective, from on-site diagnostics to information campaigns, and managing logistics. Increasingly geo-data applications are being used in providing support to refugees and internally displaced peoples. And the role of ICT in making early warning systems more effective in vulnerable locations is also well established.

Irish Aid’s work is firmly based on the principle of ‘Leave No-one Behind’. Central to that is actually knowing where your citizens are, and ensuring you have a record of all, including the most vulnerable or marginalised. Undocumented citizens is arguably the biggest barrier to universal delivery of basic services such as health and education, and ICT can play a vital role in overcoming some of the barriers to ensuring everyone is counted. In Malawi, for example, we have provided support for Citizen ID cards, which has given all citizens, regardless of class, ethnic background or gender, recognition before the State.

Brand new innovations such as blockchain, with its ledger system, has potentially transformative power, which is being explored by a range of organisations including here in Ireland. One area of obvious advantage is in streamlining cash transfers in Social Protection programmes. This effectively eliminates any risk of money going astray, and facilitates 100% transparency of funding flows, right to the individual receiving the payment. This is especially powerful in post-disaster contexts where the fiduciary management systems may not have already been set up for large-scale transfers which need to be mobilised at short notice.

In other contexts, the UN has used blockchain to good effect in the registration of vulnerable groups in conflict settings, so they are less vulnerable to human trafficking. In some cases, it can be used to track experience and qualifications of refugees so they can be recognised when they arrive in Europe after a desperate journey with nothing but the clothes on their back. We have only begun to scratch the surface of what this technology can do for the international development community.

The experience of mobile money transfer has meant many countries in Africa are arguably more sophisticated than we are here in Ireland in how people conduct their personal banking. This has also unleashed the power of remittances from the diaspora as a source of finance for development. Remittances from abroad have long since outstripped official development assistance or Foreign Direct Investment into many countries, at 35% of all resource flows. As Minister with responsible for the Irish diaspora abroad, I am acutely aware of the powerful role emigrants’ remittances played in the Irish development story. The CSO estimate that between 1940 and 1970 Irish men and women working in the UK alone sent home €5.7 billion. This was a vital lifeline during a period of economic difficulties in Ireland, and continues to be so for many other countries today. Except now these transfers can be made internationally within seconds, meaning that the existence of a close relative who is living or working abroad can be a key safety net for the most vulnerable people, as well as a source of foreign exchange for the exchequer.

The power of social media to engage diaspora communities in the future of their country is another tool that ICT brings to us. In Ireland we have a strong outreach to our Global Irish community, and we deploy a range of social media tools to do that. It means we are able to mobilise talent and networks, as well as a breadth of perspectives, to contribute to our National Development Story. Often Governments in developing countries can see the diaspora abroad, and their connections to national groups as a threat to authority, and indeed there can be risks of extremism imported via the internet. However, with the right engagement and outreach strategy, and a careful eye to the risks, it is possible to mobilise those connections for positive outcomes, as we have done in Ireland.

Irish companies are increasingly at the forefront of change, especially in Africa. In Tanzania, Irish company DLRS has been contracted to design the new Tanzanian e-passport, a key element of transforming how Tanzanian citizens travel and secure visas.

In Ethiopia, Irish company MOSS ICT has been at the forefront of innovation in introducing and rolling out mobile banking (via M-Birr), as well as piloting innovative new technologies for ensuring social protection can reach the most vulnerable.

And there is so much more we could do. 9 out of 10 global ICT companies retain a presence in Ireland, and with the sector employing some 90,000 people, we have both the human skillset, and the corporate partnerships to play a pivotal role.

In 2016, the World Economic Forum heralded the arrival of the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ with the rapid expansion of uptake and applications of ICT worldwide. But there is a lot more yet to be done, with some challenges and risks ahead. It is really important that the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ does not exacerbate inequality. Despite rapid progress in some areas, there is a growing digital divide. Despite the impressive figure of 50% of all citizens having access to a broadband signal in Least Developed Countries in 2016, this does not necessarily mean that all those people actually had a device to pick up that signal and get connected.

All of the countries where Ireland has an Embassy in sub-Saharan Africa fall in the bottom 15% of the 2016 ICT Development Index rankings by the UN body International Telecommunication Union (ITU). Whereas some 94% of our young people here in Ireland and across the EU are regular internet users, in least developed countries this tumbles to 30%. There is also a very real gender gap. In Africa men are 25% more likely to use the internet than women - and in least developed countries men are getting connected much faster than women, meaning the gap is widening.

Even though the cost of many handheld devices is falling, there is still a significant affordability gap, with the average cost of mobile internet access averaging 11% of the average household’s income. This rises to 17% for fixed line access. Although less well documented, there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that internet access is beyond the reach of people in most remote locations, as well as the elderly, members of ethnic minorities and the illiterate. For ICT to really play a transformational role in development, these barriers must also be addressed alongside wider infrastructure and regulatory gaps.

If Governments in the poorest countries fail to keep pace with technological change, new risks will emerge. In most developing countries, Government regulation is not keeping pace with the development of the sector, or enabling growth in capacity (especially for fixed line broadband services). Uganda has shown great leadership in Africa in involving the private sector in policy dialogue, and developing a ’fourth generation’ regulatory framework. But others are struggling to keep up. In general, poor regulation and coordination inhibits national Governments’ ability to address cybercrime, or safeguard intellectual property regimes. Also, continued exclusion of certain groups from internet-based networks can reinforce inequalities and hinder broad-based economic growth.

There is support available. Support to regulatory frameworks and investment in infrastructure is being spearheaded by the multilateral system, including Regional Development Banks, UNCTAD and ITU in particular. However, much more needs to be done on both the software and human side of ICT, as well as support to embedding ICT effectively in sector support. A number of major corporations have supported innovation in Least Developed Countries, with IBM’s Research Lab in Africa a great example.

The Irish Government takes very seriously the growing value of digital to the economy. In May 2016, my colleague Minister Naughten launched two reports, which highlighted the critical importance of digital to economic growth and prosperity in Ireland. The supporting evidence (based on commissioned research) showed that the digital economy represented 6% (€12.3bn) of Ireland’s GDP, had grown approximately 40% since 2012 and was expected to expand to about €21.4bn or 7.9% of GDP by 2020.

We recognised from our own research that our citizens and businesses want Government websites to be as intuitive and easy to use as the best of the retail and banking services.

I am proud that my own Department, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, successfully launched last year our online passport application form. This has shortened the application turnaround time from 12 to 7 days for applications within the State, and from an average of 30 to 7 days for adults outside the state. Our processing time for online applications is now 3 times quicker than the traditional paper application channel. The system has also introduced a huge degree of convenience for people who now no longer have to physically present themselves at a Passport office. We expected the uptake to be 30% of all eligible adult passport renewals in 2017, but this uptake actually was 40%. And this has been delivered during a period of unprecedented demand from the Irish family abroad for Irish passports.

In my own constituency, the long-delayed establishment of a data centre by Apple has finally been given the green light, and I am convinced will play a vital role in jobs creation, and revitalisation of the local economy around Athenry.

We have also, as a Government, made good use of social media to reach out to citizens and diaspora, and listen to them. I am pleased to announce that we will be launching a broad-based public consultation on the new White Paper on International Development on the 18th of April next. In this, as in so many other facets of our work, ICT will provide us with essential tools. We will use social media to good effect, and invite e-submissions from a range of actors. This will not substitute for human interaction, and nor should it. But we expect that more clever use of ICT will enable a more broad-based, dynamic conversation about the future of our aid programme, and allow us to listen to voices we don’t always get to hear.

We expect that ICT will continue to be an important part of the development story in the future, as a source of innovation, as a means to strengthen voice of those traditionally excluded, to stimulate markets, and to improve governance. Importantly, it will generate jobs for young people, so badly needed to address inequality, and see through economic transformation. Africa in particular is changing- and it is important that the Aid sector catches up and seizes opportunities.

On a recent visit to Tanzania I had the privilege of launching Africa Code Week. Tanzania is newly realising the benefits of the digital economy, and a key part of that is investing in the digital literacy of her young people. Irish Aid is supporting this, building on the Irish experience of investing in ICT capacity. The Irish Aid programme in Tanzania supports an organisation called Apps and Girls which supports activities in schools to recruit young girls into coding clubs, and build their digital capabilities. I was humbled to meet a young girl called Doreen who told me that her dream was to become an astronaut. She understood that building her ICT capability was a vital step to realising this dream. Surely there can be no more powerful testimony to the importance of bridging the digital divide, to unleash the power within so many young women and girls across Africa?

Thank you.

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