The world has changed dramatically since USAID’s founding in 1961, and the pace of change is accelerating. Digital technology increasingly pervades daily life. In recent years, the proliferation of digital technology has transformed the ways in which the world’s economies, governments, and people interact and engage with one another.1 Many experts say that we are now on the cusp of a Fourth Industrial Revolution,2 which will touch every industry and upend existing business models, including those disrupted just a few years earlier.
Community leaders engage their constituents via popular mobile messaging platforms. Utilities operate and secure power grids and other infrastructure with networked computers and sensors. Transformative technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) offer tremendous potential to tailor goods and services to meet individual needs. Blockchain-backed start-ups work to tackle intractable problems like corruption, lack of transparency, and unique identification for a global citizenry. Some small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and motivated entrepreneurs are becoming micro-multinationals by opening up their shops and skill sets to online global markets and the burgeoning "gig economy."a
Whereas mobile phones and the internet were once limited to wealthy countries, the rapid diffusion of digital technology holds the promise of a new digitally enabled global society, with the potential to spur economic growth, improve development outcomes, transform health delivery, lift millions out of poverty, and ultimately move us closer to ending the need for foreign assistance. For example, expanding the availability of fast internet in Africa has increased employment levels and average income, especially for high-skilled jobs and workers.3 When properly deployed and regulated, advanced communications networks enable "smart-city" applications that could mitigate the negative effects of urban population growth, improve the management of natural resources, and increase agricultural productivity.4
However, these same systems can have undesirable consequences when not developed with respect for the individual rights of users. Authoritarian governments and malign actors can wield digital tools to suppress political dissent, quash individual freedoms, limit competition in the marketplace, or take advantage of individuals who lack digital literacy. On the grounds of analytical support, social engagement, or civil protection, regimes can deploy digital tools as instruments of intimidation, surveillance, theft, and control—effectively silencing, rather than amplifying, critical voices.5 Digital technology has increased the risks young people, women, and religious and ethnic minorities face, through the creation of new platforms that enable bullying, hate speech, sexual abuse, exploitation, victimization, recruitment into trafficking, and radicalization to violence. Additionally, digitally augmented programming that ignores geographic or gender disparities in the access to, or use of, mobile phones, or whose algorithms fail to correct for bias may end up failing the most vulnerable or marginalized populations.6
How society evolves in the digital age does not depend only on new technology and innovation, but on non-digital building blocks that make up the digital ecosystem— elements such as domestic and international regulatory environments; political economy; institutional capacity; and individuals’ skills, protections, and agency. While digital ecosystems can, and should, evolve according to market forces, donors such as USAID can help ensure digital ecosystems serve all citizens, especially the most marginalized and vulnerable. American values of inclusion, freedom, and accountability must guide our digital investments. Our role should be to foster a locally owned approach, adapt our approaches to local conditions where necessary and appropriate,b and ensure the foundational ecosystem components and necessary guardrails are in place to guarantee that digital technology benefits and protects all citizens.
a. The "gig economy" is a system in which individuals or organizations engage independent workers on short-term assignments, often via online platforms, such as Amazon Mechanical Turk, TaskRabbit, Uber, etc.
b. In certain cases, a desired local approach could run counter to established U.S. policies, like those on cross-border flows of data and data-localization. USAID-funded projects should not support the adoption of digital development schemes that run counter to established U.S. trade and national-security policies.