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The Chairman's Blog

Closing the digital divide – preparing for the UK Aid’s next big thing

January 26, 2024

Purpose of this note

I was a bit shocked to be referred to recently, for the first time, as a ‘veteran of the aid industry’.  But it points to the fact that I’ve been involved in aid and development for a generation.  Enough time to see the fashions/fads come and go and ask the big question: what’s the next big thing?

This paper seeks to answer that question.  It canters first over the trends of the last 30 years – outlining the wild and political swings of the pendulum of aid fashion.  I then look to the future and what’s driving change, examining:

  1. elements of Labour’s nascent planning for government in the UK
  2. the digital policies, planning and programmes of USAID
  3. the Government’s own White Paper: a smorgasbord of digital policies and plans

From this I set out the contours of what I expect to be thenext big flagship policy for UK development and aid spending: bridging the digital divide.

The paper closes by filleting Chapter 8 of that UK White Paper to identify what embassies, holders of framework contracts and builders of advisory rosters should do NOW to get ahead of the curve: to position and prepare for the slew of new programmes that will start coming on-line from the end of 2024 and beyond. 

We give some thought to how ambitious FCDO Development Directors should be positioning their design/research, forward programming and portfolio in anticipation for this surge of interest in and demand for programmes that focus on closing the ‘digital divide’.  Programmes that aim to ensure broader access to connectivity, strengthening data architecture and governance, building digital public infrastructure to support digital identity, payments, data exchange and access to public services.

Aid fashions – they come and go

Aid thinking and fashion swings – erratically – on a pendulum that hovers between three poles: building stuff, giving money directly, or providing advice.  The swings of that pendulum are determined, almost magnetically, by a range of abstractions or ‘isms’: idealism, pragmatism, activism but those swings are anchored in or driven by the realities of public finances and by the political weather.  

Washington Consensus kicks extension services into the long grass

When I entered this world in the early 1990s UK aid was still all about building things, ports, dams, highways and agricultural extension services, but the activism, idealism and interest unleashed by the Ethiopian famine, and Band Aid was beginning to shake things up and move aid up the political agenda.

Then ideology joined the party in the late 1990s as the Washington Consensus trickled and then roared through the sector, with the export of privatisation, tax reform and support to IFI-led structural adjustment programmes. 

Liberal intervention moves state building to the top of the pile

Post 2001 the emphasis moved to state building in support of so-called liberal intervention with the associated rise of governance cadres and advisory teams grappling with standing-up governments, strengthening ministries and civil service reform.  

The 0.7% target drove budget support –  aka giving money directly – to the top of the pile as the incoming Tory Government championed Private Sector Development (PSD) at the expense of governance with the jargon laced pseudo-science of Making Markets Work for the Poor (M4P) leading the charge.   

Why GESI, why now?

But, like previous fads and fashions, there’s little evidence that expensive PSD interventions deliver the sort of systemic change its advocates have championed and the high-water mark of the M4P bandwagon is long past.  One very encouraging result of living in these more fiscally straightened times is the greater focus on what works and evidence of developmental impact. The currentfocus on the mainstreaming of GESI both reflects the thread of progressive activism within the aid industry (and Whitehall) the fact that it’s cheap, and there is evidence that it works: it doesn’t require the huge capital outlay required, say, to arrest climate change or green the global economy and yet can measurably move the needle on numerous development outcomes. 

The facts that these fashions and fads come and go is a reflection that none, by themselves, are going to make poverty history: all have either failed or have significant weaknesses and point to the reality that development is complex and that neither idealism nor ideology are a sufficient basis for effective aid.

The tilt towards tech, digital and cyber

Harnessing the power of digital technology is a rare opportunity to ‘hack’ development outcomes. Over the course of my career, the possibilities for smarter and better government service delivery have greatly increased.

The first clue that Britain will tilt decisively towards digital development is to be found in the British Labour party’s own plans for domestic government. 

The second clue is to be found with what USAID is doing on the digital and cyber front. 

The UK government’s own recent white paper on aid is peppered with new thinking, and nascent thoughts on what closing the digital divide means and how to actually do it.

Finally, while technology offers us great promise it also comes with risks. The more connected our societies become the more important it becomes that we have the proper mitigations and safeguards in place.

Driver # 1 – Labour plans draw on the Baltics States

Details are emerging on the radical ambition – and digital underpinning – of Keir Starmer’s programme for government in the UK which is underpinned by a plan to put technology at the heart of public service reform.

Starmer has appointed Peter Kyle as shadow science secretary to oversee a digital revolution across Whitehall, using artificial intelligence to simultaneously personalise services and reduce bureaucracy.

A team of tech specialists, including some from the private sector has this month begun work on a detailed programme for digital government next week. Kyle has already met industry experts who helped to create online banking tools and is studying the way in which other countries, including Estonia, have reformed their public services through technology.

“People shouldn’t underestimate the scale of our ambition on this,” he told Rachel Sylvester of the Times. “Technology will revolutionise people’s interaction with public services and do so in a more efficient and effective way.” 

We believe that talk of a digital revolution in the reform the provision of public services in the UK will exert a strong influence on how FCDO frames its aid spending.   Expect to hear more on digital revolutions in the Baltic States, flurries of roundtables and workshops, and to see more former officials and ministers from Estonia, Lativia and Lithuania popping up in Team Leader and Chief of Party positions.  The Tony Blair Institute will become increasingly active in advising on the policies for digital transformation in the UK and globally.

Driver #2 The Americans set the pace on digital development

While it’s reassuring to think that the UK speaks with an independent voice on matters of aid and development it’s more realistic to accept – as with defence and diplomacy – that what the US is doing and thinking has a defining influence on UK policy and helps set the political weather.

And USAID has begun to pick up the pace, significantly, on mainstreaming digital/cyber/tech into their policy and programme design.

The recent appointment of a senior Chief Digital Information Officer and implementation of an ambitious Agency wide Digital Strategy USAID has demonstrated real commitment to the digital cause and has given ICT4D-ers a boost.

The development of a cadre of Digital Development Advisers and the establishment of a Digital Executive Fellowship programme has added to the sense of momentum.   As has the collection and collation of data to back and buttress the policy; for example, USAID’s the Digital Ecosystem Evidence Map – that pulls together a vast amount of data and best practice to make the case for putting digital and tech solutions at the core of international development.

USAID DEEM – Evidence Map Grid View (

USAID’s target countries now have interventions in and across 12 different issues, sectors or areas of focus.  It points to the fact that there’s a lot of emerging US best practice floating around – a menu even – from which UK policymakers and practitioners can draw. 

USAID’s MENU of 12 Country Level Interventions
Digital infrastructure development: Interventions that facilitate access to digital technology or improve digital infrastructure (e.g., internet bandwidth, network coverage, fiber optic cables and towers, etc.).
E-government: Interventions that facilitate the provision of government services and communication between the public and government agencies using digital technology.
Policy and regulation for digital services: Macro-level policies that facilitate access to or use of digital technologies.
Cybersecurity: Interventions that facilitate the ways in which individuals, systems, and technology protect information and communications systems and information kept in digital formats against damage, unauthorized use or modification, or exploitation.
Data privacy: Interventions that aim to protect individual or groups rights to their personal data. Data privacy is the right of an individual or group to maintain control over, and the confidentiality of, information about themselves, especially when that intrusion results from undue or illegal gathering and use of data about that individual or group.
Data systems and development: Interventions that use digital technology to improve data collection, management, and use—such as electronic health record systems.
Child protection: Interventions that harness technology and digital innovations to safeguard children from digitally enabled harm or harm in digital environments, whether physical, emotional, or sexual. It also includes targeting and stopping adults who use digital technology to exploit and abuse children.
Digital finance: Interventions that promote the use of mobile technologies for finance (e.g. mobile money payment applications), increasing transparency and opening new and inclusive markets.
Digital inclusion: Interventions that facilitate access to digital and data technologies, particularly—though not exclusively—for vulnerable and historically marginalized groups.
Digital information services: Digital technology for information dissemination and the provision of individual services. The former refers to interventions intended to improve the flow of information using digital tools, while the latter refers to interventions such as text messages to change or “nudge” behavior. Services related to finance or health are excluded from this category.
Digital literacy: Interventions that develop or improve digital literacy, particularly—though not exclusively—for historically marginalized groups. Digital literacy is the ability to access, manage, understand, integrate, communicate, evaluate, and create information safely and appropriately through digital devices and networked technologies for participation in economic and social life. It may also be known as computer literacy, information and communication technology (ICT) literacy, information literacy, or media literacy.
Upskilling/Capacity Building: Interventions that leverage digital technologies to help develop or strengthen the skills, abilities, processes, and resources that individuals, businesses, or institutions need to effectively participate in economic and social life.

Driver # 3 The UK commits to harnessing innovation and digital transformation

Technology is at the centre of the UK’s November 2023 White Paper.  As the UK’s International Development Minister states in the press release.  ‘We have a unique opportunity – using science, technology and innovation – to have a lasting, long-term impact on tackling hunger, poverty and climate change.’  

These sorts of generic pronouncement, while welcome, have been made many times in the past.  This time, however, these general sentiments, are underpinned by actionable policy initiatives and proposed programming.

The table below trails a veritable smorgasbord of such policies and programmes.

FCDO White Paper Chapter 8 – Policies and Programming Smorgasbord
8.7. There is an opportunity to respond more effectively to conflict and humanitarian crises by harnessing the power of AI, big data, advances in satellite technology, and mobile access. This includes providing civilians with advanced warning of drone attacks and preparing for predicted droughts or floods, saving both lives and money.
8.13. We will implement the flagship R&D programme launched at the UK’s AI summit, aimed at building countries’ capacity to develop and apply AI responsibly, in support of development progress, with partnerships initially focused across Africa.
8.14. We will, in partnership with global and national meteorological offices, leverage the science expertise and leadership in UK institutions such as the Met Office, to better predict the changing climate, and use information to support millions of poor farmers and communities in 30 countries.
8.16. We will test and use the opportunities provided by satellite data and advanced analytical techniques. These include the use of AI to allow rapid identification of conflict flashpoints, respond more pre-emptively to extreme weather events, and enable faster responses to humanitarian emergencies.
8.17. We will fund research that generates evidence on what works to tackle important but under-researched development challenges. These include how to deliver effective support during humanitarian crises, tackle illicit finance and reduce corruption, empower women and reduce violence, and how to scale up promising programmes.
8.19. Our vision is for inclusive, responsible, and sustainable digital transformation in low- and middle-income countries. Digital inclusion means ensuring that no-one is left behind in our increasingly digital world. But the existing digital divide means that 2.6 billion people remain offline.   The benefits of digital transformation should be more evenly distributed, including equitable and sustainable access to affordable connectivity, digital skills, and locally relevant digital content and services.
8.20. A safe, secure, and resilient digital environment is a global priority, as is supporting all countries to manage down the risks of an increasingly connected digital world and build trust in digital technologies. This will require a global effort to address online safety, and to build capacity for cybersecurity and cyber resilience, including combating disinformation and threats to privacy and freedom of expression.
8.21. Progress requires international collaboration and investment in digital development interventions. Digital technology is helping to close the global digital divide in low- and middle-income countries, including through digital payments, digital identification and enabling change in health, agriculture, education, trade and supply chains, and humanitarian response. We will work through the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Digital Co-operation, the UN Tech Envoy Office and the UN Global Digital Compact. The UK is well placed to play its part, building on our approach to ‘Doing development in a digital world’.
8.22. Solving the problem of ‘last-mile connectivity’ will require an international approach including the private sector and civil society, to reach the 2.6 billion people who remain offline. The UN Global Digital Compact process, which supports inclusive connectivity and the International Telecommunication Union’s global Partner2Connect initiative will be important parts of this, as will strategic initiatives like the UK’s multi-country Digital Access Programme (DAP), partnerships with industry associations, and an enabling environment for private sector investment in sustainable and scalable connectivity models around the world.
8.25. Both the opportunities and the risks created by AI are amplified in low- and middle-income country contexts. Multi-stakeholder approaches and international partnership efforts are needed to leverage AI solutions that safely and inclusively accelerate progress towards the SDGs. This includes investing in understanding the specific benefits and risks of AI for marginalised groups, including women and girls and people living with disabilities.
8.26. The transformation of the delivery of public services through digital technologies, known as Digital Public Infrastructure (DPI), is a rapidly growing area of international interest. DPI is likely to have considerable impact on the delivery of the SDGs. We will work together with international and country-led partners to maximise the development benefits of DPI and contribute to global DPI consensus and support.
8.27. Fit-for-purpose, trustworthy and inclusive digital data should be championed. Countries require strong national data systems, and improved capacity, to make the best decisions for their development, and to enable action and measurable progress towards 2030 goals. This will fuel progress and improve outcomes for the poorest, while tackling poverty and combating climate change and nature loss.
8.28. The cybersecurity capacity of governments, businesses and users in low and middle-income countries is critical. The UK promotes investment in critical digital infrastructure, supports the use of verification mechanisms in the cyber industry, linking cyber hygiene with broader digital development, and advocating for development banks to incentivise partner countries’ own investment in cybersecurity capacity.
8.34. We will promote digital inclusion through a policy initiative on last mile connectivity; and by building on our Digital Access Programme, with a focus on women and girls and marginalised groups.
8.35. We will promote safe and secure digital transformation, including through support to DPI, cybersecurity capacity-building and online safety.
8.36. We will promote responsible and inclusive AI, including through the Global Partnership on AI (GPAI) and a new flagship programme on AI for Development.
8.37. We will deliver technical assistance and build strategic partnerships with National Statistical Offices, tackling country priorities for capacity building and innovation.

So where to intervene and on what?

A lot of space has been given to debates on AI.   The UK White Paper highlights the power and challenges posed by AI.  But without crowding out other elements of the digital revolution.   The USAID note on its 12 areas of digital intervention is more circumspect and doesn’t muddy the waters of basic digital transformation with the froth and excitement of AI.

At MetricsLed we hope the UK’s international development community – and the tech/digital/data folk within it – don’t get so preoccupied and distracted with the big debates on AI that they divert attention, resources and funding from policies and programmes that aim to support digital transformation on the ground now, today in real time.
Practical and tested ‘Nuts and Bolts’ type programmes that focus on closing the ‘digital divide’: ensuring broader access to connectivity, strengthening data architecture and governance, building safe digital public infrastructure to support digital identity, payments, data exchange and access to public services.  

This is where UK Aid on tech should be focussed: doing standard ‘digital ecosystem’ review of countries to inform programming and then grinding out digital transformation and change programmes, strengthening and building countries, institutions and people, opening access.  USAID’s portfolio and the data derived from it shows the way forward and how to move from policy to implementation.

Okay, so this is a little downstream and operational from the heady mix of politicians, ethicists, regulators, Tech Bros and public intellectuals that gathered to cross swords on guardrails and emergency protocols at Bletchley Park late last year.  But the UK has a limited pot to spend on digital innovation and tech. We should prioritise spending it on digital transformation: putting in the plumbing, to ensure that the transformative impact of new technologies – whether AI driven or not – can reach those that need them the most.