ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Thank you, Sheerin, for that kind introduction.
I’m so pleased to be with you all today to offer some thoughts about the intersection of technology and development.
And I’m especially excited to join Temie Giwa-Tubosun, Founder of LifeBank, just after these remarks, for a conversation. Temie’s work uses technology to match excess blood supplies to hospitals in need. And it is exactly the kind of innovation we should be upholding and expanding.
I’d also like to acknowledge Doreen Bogdan-Martin, whom you heard from earlier this morning, and who is in the running to be the next Secretary-General of the International Telecommunication Union. The Union is the most important agency you’ve never heard of. One that will, quite literally, determine the future of the internet. And we are confident that Doreen will be a leader who will advance its development in a manner consistent with our shared values.
We all know that famous saying: there’s an app for everything. Well, it turns out that there’s even an app for enduring a war.
For many of those in Ukraine fleeing violence, there wasn’t time to gather passports or internal documents as Putin’s missiles rained down. IDs and emergency funds may have been destroyed along with their homes. And regardless of documentation, every Ukrainian, inside and outside the country, desperately needed access to funds to survive.
That’s where Diia comes in.
Some of you may have heard about Diia’s business applications earlier this morning. Diia is an app that was originally designed to simplify bureaucracy. Today, the Ukrainian Government has repurposed it for wartime. It creates a digital ID, recognized by both local Ukrainian authorities and the border agents of neighboring countries. It enables round-the-clock access to television and radio stations, at a time when information can be life-saving. It allows citizens to report on enemy troop movements or even donate to the army. And its core use that we’re working to support at USAID is to provide access to emergency funds and government assistance that can help Ukrainians who have been displaced or who are vulnerable in other ways to weather the conflict. Diia shows us that, when well-designed, accessible, focused on people’s needs—technology can save lives.
But Diia’s success doesn’t just come from its usefulness. It also owes its wartime success to the resilience of Ukraine’s broader digital ecosystem. This is an ecosystem whose strength is attributable to direct investments from the Ukrainian government over a period of years.
Ukraine enjoys far-reaching connectivity. It has strong cybersecurity capabilities that are tested virtually every hour of every day. And it had nearly 5,000 internet service providers as of December 2021, just two months before the war. Its workforce is incredibly digitally literate—in January 2021, roughly 30 million Ukrainians used the internet. And Ukraine’s digital policies and regulations helped build trust in the nation’s digital ecosystem and the technology it supports.
Less than two years after its launch in 2020 by the Ukrainian Ministry of Digital Transformation, Diia had 13 million users even before the Russian invasion. Its wild success in such a short period of time is quite an accomplishment, because let’s remember, this is a government-created, government-supported app. And bureaucracy isn’t generally all that hip. Even having a Ministry of Digital Transformation tells us something about the direction that the Ukrainian government was going before the war—a direction that made Putin crazy. These kinds of innovations will allow for greater integration with the democratic world in a manner that Putin viewed as threatening.
Ukraine’s national commitment to digital resilience has been borne in part from dealing with eight years of cyberattacks and onslaughts of disinformation from the Russian Federation. I’m really proud of the work that USAID has done over the years in helping Ukraine preempt and counter such cyberattacks, investments we’ve made over many years in Ukraine’s cyber infrastructure and cybersecurity alongside investments in technology like Diia.
I will say, though—and this is something of a confession—what we’ve realized is that prior to the war, we had not invested in the underlying ecosystems that allowed that app to work so well.
Those investments are some of the most critical investments that have allowed Diia to work. The lesson there, as a community: yes, we need apps, but we also need to make those investments in the ecosystem that allow those apps to function. To build a broader digital ecosystem is to support the success and versatility of apps like Diia. And to invest in both is critical in our mission to make foreign assistance more impactful, but also more inclusive.
By 2019, it was hard to think of one aspect of life that wasn’t somewhat digitized. All of you can identify with this: banking, shopping, even dating—everything was online. That year, less than thirty years after the creation of the World Wide Web, 4.1 billion people were using the internet.
The COVID-19 pandemic only accelerated that trend.
As schools closed, businesses shuttered, and government offices limited service, for those with accessible internet, the digital economy allowed life to continue as normally as the pandemic would allow.
Kids around the world—including my own, begrudgingly—took classes online and tried to keep up their education. In-person meetings took place over video. Businesses shifted to e-commerce and online retail, sometimes lodging huge gains. Governments around the world, from Togo to the Philippines, continued delivering essential services to their citizens digitally when they were not able to do so physically.
Digital tools have also become essential to battling COVID itself. Public health organizations, medical professionals, and hospitals used digital geospatial and mapping technology to track cases. And we would be nowhere in our massive effort to vaccinate the world without digital technology in helping us deliver vaccines and kept track of who has received what dose at what time while also tracking the most vulnerable populations to prioritize and target.
In 2021, the number of people using the internet had spiked to 4.9 billion—almost two thirds of the global population. That’s a nine percent increase in just two years over the course of the pandemic. But with digital progress has also come digital repression, and in some cases, a widening digital divide.
Around 2.9 billion people still cannot access the internet. That gap has far-reaching implications for meeting development and humanitarian needs. Especially when the People’s Republic of China is all too eager to fill that gap. This is a government that censors social media, uses the internet to push state-sponsored disinformation, and expands government surveillance even taking advantage of COVID-19 to do so.
Such tactics could very well be contagious. Around the world, Beijing is investing heavily in digital ecosystems in developing countries where USAID is already working. These investments create environments ripe for digital repression—internet shutdowns, online censorship, and generalized and targeted surveillance and data collection.
But while technology can, indeed, be weaponized, the truth is that digitization isn’t going anywhere. Connectivity in 2022 is no longer a luxury of any kind, but a necessity. And if we are to shape our planet for the better. We must make digitization a central tenet of our work.
Since the very beginning, USAID has embraced digitization.
In 1996, the Agency began coordinating the activities of the Leland Initiative, which granted $15 million over five years to expand internet connectivity and electronic technologies in over 20 African countries. That was a long time ago. I remember my own laptop at that time, which was about as heavy as my desk today. My cell phone was the size of a milk carton.
But those were just the beginnings.
In the decades since, USAID has supported, coordinated, and co-founded efforts to use technology to strengthen economies and increase social mobility. We’ve seen the profound impacts of providing mobile technology to women in developing countries, digitizing cash transfers and payments like what Diia is doing in Ukraine, and minimizing corruption in judicial systems.
We’ve supported global partnerships like the Better Than Cash Alliance, the Alliance for Affordable Internet, and the Digital Impact Alliance. These partnerships show the power of building movements alongside donors and like-minded partners.
As digital technology has become more central to our lives, USAID’s commitment to digitization has grown as well. In April 2020, just a couple months into the pandemic, USAID launched its first-ever Digital Strategy, which outlined the necessity of open, inclusive, and secure digital ecosystems to the Agency’s work, committed to securing digital ecosystems, and acknowledged the importance of using digital technology in our programs.
That emphasis helped us fight COVID-19. Thanks to the Digital Health Vision—the first sector-specific plank of our Digital Strategy—we began more deliberately strengthening country digital health systems and that will have knock-on benefits for health and welfare well beyond the pandemic.
That means systems like mHero, a text messaging platform that uses national health worker registries to directly connect health agencies with remote doctors and nurses. The platform was created in the wake of Ebola in West Africa. But today, mHero is still in use in Liberia to share critical information about COVID-19 with health workers.
So this is our commitment as an Agency: to make open, inclusive, and secure technology not an afterthought, but the foundation of our work. And to expand digital development itself to be more accessible, equitable, and responsive.
That means working with digital entrepreneurs already driving change in their communities—innovators like Temie, whose company, as I mentioned, is tackling blood supply shortages in Nigeria and has now expanded into Kenya and Ethiopia.
It means enabling every country and every citizen to embrace digital transformation—by strengthening digital literacy among marginalized populations, and by bringing entire communities online for the first time. And it means meeting the needs of individual communities—from using digital financial services to help shopkeepers in Kumasi to helping anti-corruption champions in San Salvador monitor government spending.
I’m proud to launch three new initiatives to aid those efforts.
The first is USAID’s Digital Literacy Primer—a tool to educate Agency staff and partners on the importance of digital literacy and how it can be incorporated into USAID programming in every sector and mission. This builds USAID understanding of digital literacy, and encourages staff to share lessons and best practices—so that we are better able to empower those individuals entering the digital economy for the first time.
I’m also pleased to announce the 2022 Digital Development Awards. The awards are open to any USAID-funded projects and activities that use digital technology, support digital entrepreneurs or innovators, or expand connectivity or access to digital services. Past winners of the Digis have helped minimize corruption and enhance transparency in the Kyrgyz judicial system, provide real-time data to strengthen health information systems in Indonesia, and improve fishery sustainability and data collection in the Asia-Pacific.
Finally, I’m pleased to share that USAID’s first-ever Artificial Intelligence Action Plan will go live this week.
Artificial intelligence is poised to increase global GDP by 16 percent by 2030. But as we’ve seen in countries all over the world, democratic and authoritarian alike, artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms used in technology like facial recognition, data collection, and location tracking can be repurposed for digital repression.
And while we should never underestimate the possibility or potency of repression, the solution is not to turn our backs on the promise of digitization, but doing everything in our power to manage the risks.
In that spirit, the Artificial Intelligence Action Plan offers a road map to navigate the use of artificial intelligence in our programming. The plan outlines and commits a vision for responsible artificial intelligence and provides ways for USAID and its partners to strengthen digital ecosystems and partnerships to preempt its risks.
We’ve made great strides at USAID to build digital technology into our programming—strengthening policies around digitization, building skills among the workforce and in our programs, especially for women and girls, and expanding internet access.
But we have more work to do as an Agency, and as a development community.
To the USAID employees here today, I urge you to think more broadly about the role that digital technologies can play in your work. Think about how to repurpose existing technologies, like the Ukrainian Government did with Diia. And help us use existing tools to address gaps in the digital ecosystems that support those technologies.
To our current partners, in government or in civil society: work with local partners who are leading digital change and innovation in their communities. Listen to them, and invest in them. And remember the risks—and focus not just on infrastructure and economy, which comes naturally to our community but on digital rights and governance, as well.
And to those who may not have worked formally with us before: even if you choose not to partner with us, please join us in our commitment to embrace a democratic vision of digital transformation. One that emphasizes digital literacy for those who need it most, and that promotes human rights, privacy, and justice for all.
In Ukrainian, Diia means “action.” Let us take action today.
Thank you so much.