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The Chairman's Blog

Tony Blair and USAID point to new directions for the UKAid push on digital development

May 30, 2024

I’ve spent much of the last 12 months considering what I feel is the next big swing of the UK Aid pendulum.  A swing away from the dominance of the Private Sector Development/M4P model towards a new paradigm centred on the use of digital technology and driven by data.   

This new approach – I’ve argued – will be centred on significant programmes and funding for the digitisation of public services, investment in digital public infrastructure/building sovereign AI capability and the application of AI to humanitarian challenges.

The 2023 UK Aid White Paper hinted at this new direction of travel.  The 2024 FCDO’s digital strategy to 2030 put some meat on its bones and set out some clear targets

  1. Last-mile ConnectivityBy 2030 we will have supported at least 20 partner countries to reduce their digital divides by an average of 50% (halving their connectivity gap). ‘
  2. Digital Public Infrastructure (DPI)By 2030 we will have supported at least 20 partner countries to transform the delivery of digital services at a national level through improved DPI. ‘
  3. Artificial IntelligenceBy 2030 we will have created or scaled up at least 8 responsible AI research labs at African universities and helped create regulatory frameworks for responsible AI.’
  4. Women & GirlsBy 2030 we will have supported at least 50 million women and girls to participate safely and meaningfully in the digital world. ‘

This month has seen the release of two new reports that will help shape the operational contours of this new focus

The first report is the new Draft USAID Digital Policy.

Here’s much more of the sensible and clear thinking that has helped USAID emerge as the leading proponent of practical and tested ‘Nuts and Bolts’ type digitisation programmes:

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.

The second is a new report from the Tony Blair Institute Governing in the Age of AI – A New Model to Transform the State.

This is a bit more ‘woo woo’ and out there than USAID’s staid and operational primers for digital practitioners and champions.    It’s also exclusively focussed on the UK.   But it’s got lots of shiny new concepts for aid policy wonks to get their teeth into.   For example:

  • ‘Set up a new, expert AI operation in Number 10 to join up existing teams – an AI Mission Control, headed by a dynamic AI Mission CEO with a strong mandate to drive change. Reporting to the prime minister and working closely with departmental teams, it should act as a beacon for the best and the brightest people to build a new operating model of government.’
  • Nominate a small number of “AI exemplar” departments such as the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology and the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero, providing funding and a clear mandate to bring their operating models and work environments in line with the best UK firms in their domains.
  • Enforce and fund a “Bezos mandate[1]” requiring all government departments to provide clearly documented, secure ways to access data and functionality.

Concluding thoughts

It took a nearly a decade for Delivery Units (and their fairly analogue traffic light system) to work their way from Whitehall into DFID Programmes across the globe.    Nudge Units were quicker out of the traps as the thinking and former members of the Behavioural Insights Team landed in the aid sector.

Digital delivery already has a head of steam building: I suspect we’ll see concepts like AI Mission Control & AI Exemplar Departments in FCDO programming from 2025.  

The relationship between UK domestic policies/reforms and UKAID’s policies and programme is well established, interesting and generally welcome. 

But as the FCDO wrestles with the challenges of localisation it’s worth pointing that there’s a lot of other relevant international experience to draw on.   From India, where progress on digitisation has been tempered by concerns over use of citizen data in this year’s live election, through to the experience of digital revolution in the Baltic States, and more recently Ukraine.

Digitisation presents a dynamic and fast changing set of opportunities and challenges in the aid and humanitarian sector, with expertise and experience widely spread across the globe, but lots of ‘ad hocery’ in its application.  The FCDO should use its convening power early in the life of the next parliament to pull this global experience together and take a leading role in synthesising it.  An official UK led summit in early 2025 perhaps?

MetricsLed’s digital delivery platforms are already in use to deliver aid and humanitarian action for the British Government globally.  Our advisory teams are working on digital public infrastructure programmes in East Africa and across the Middle East for FCDO and other donors.

[1] Bezos Mandate: the guiding principle of this mandate issued at Amazon by Bezos in circa 2002 was expressed as: ‘All teams will henceforth expose their data and functionality through service interfaces’.  The mandate forced the developers to bring an API-first approach to every new service they built and helped establish the ubiquity of the Amazon platform.