1 December 2022 [digital.global] kick-off event for the strategic realignment of the BMZ's digital policy

Speech by Development Minister Svenja Schulze

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Ladies and gentlemen,

Imagine that a severe disease is spreading. Those who get ill have a fever, feel unwell and tired, have pain in the limbs. The course of the disease may vary, but one thing is certain: it will kill many people. One way the disease can be transmitted is by droplet transmission. Keeping a minimum distance from others is advisable. And it is important to trace who met whom, and when they met.

And then someone comes up with the innovative idea to use digital technology to do this. Using smartphones, by means of an app. Many thousands of people can be saved because infection chains are interrupted.

That is how it was with Ebola in Nigeria in 2014.

And you are familiar with the concept because the idea was taken up again during the COVID-19 pandemic and developed further.

The SORMAS software was originally developed in western Africa in 2014 in order to collect and connect all relevant data and stakeholders during the Ebola pandemic. Germany began supporting the development of the software at an early stage. And now SORMAS has become a digital public good.

In short: a software solution developed in collaboration with Africa was and still is the basis for curbing the spread of coronavirus in countries like France and Germany, saving thousands of lives every day.

When people hear about “digital technologies in development cooperation”, they often think of innovations that the Global North brings to the Global South. But actually – and this is also true for many other questions that need answers – it is all about mutual learning! There are many areas where we can support our partner countries. I am thinking, for instance, about providing advice on market regulation so that people can have affordable internet access. But there are just as many topics where we can learn a lot from our partner countries.

I realised that quite soon after I had taken office. In February, I met many female entrepreneurs in Rwanda. Great women. They told me that people in Rwanda handle almost all their financial transactions using their smartphones. Unlike in Germany, where – even three years into the COVID-19 pandemic – “cash only” is far too often still the rule.

So one could say that Germany is almost a developing country when it comes to digital technology. This has got to change. And it is an important signal, therefore, that a “Digital Decade” has been launched together with our national Digital Strategy. What I find even more important is that there are plans to develop an international digital strategy. I am aware that, now, all of you – and especially all you experts who are present here – are waiting for this announcement to be translated into concrete action.

Today, the German Development Ministry is taking the first step, together with GIZ and KfW, to do just that. Development policy is an important element of a successful international digital policy. One could even say that international digital policy cannot be successful unless it includes development policy.

In my view, there are three points that are key:

First of all, I am fully convinced that development policy can only be successful if it also integrates digital elements. For development policy, the core task is to implement the 2030 Agenda of the United Nations and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals. My political work is guided by this Agenda. But the international community will not be able to achieve the SDGs by 2030 unless quantum leaps are made in digital technology. This includes infrastructure as well as modern information technology. Development policy and digital policy must be seen and implemented in combination.

Second, under German development policy we are offering a digital policy that aims to balance interests properly and is at the same time underpinned by European standards. In this way, we are providing a real alternative to what autocracies are offering. What we are offering does not lead to new dependencies. On the contrary: Germany and the EU are very interested in reducing existing dependencies. That is why we are offering our partner countries solutions that are beneficial to both sides. A good example is the recently agreed close cooperation with Pakistan under the Global Shield against Climate Risks. Through open-source models, we want to give Pakistan’s authorities access to risk modelling and risk data that would otherwise be expensive and difficult to access. These can then be adapted to local conditions. This will, for example, enable local authorities to assess flood risks more accurately and adapt their planning instruments, early warning systems and financial protection mechanisms accordingly. At the same time, these models get better the more they are used, because they then have more data to work with. Therefore, such modelling approaches can also help mitigate the impacts of the next natural disaster in Europe.

And third, and this is really important to me: digitalisation is of no use if it is an end itself. At the BMZ, we see digital technologies as an integral part of all our activities and topics. Let me illustrate this with some examples. The administration of health financing and other social protection schemes is complex and data-intensive. Digitalising these systems can greatly increase efficiency. However, scheme operators in our partner countries are often struggling to purchase and implement the software. In such cases, the open-source software openIMIS is a sustainable alternative to expensive commercial solutions. It is a way for our partner countries to build expertise– and they can use and maintain the software themselves in the long run. The initiative for this digital public good was launched and is being financed by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation and BMZ. Currently, openIMIS is being used in seven countries, mostly in Africa, to administer schemes covering almost ten million people.

And here’s another example: Feminist development policy matters a lot to me. During my trip to Rwanda, I also visited the Digital Transformation Center in Kigali. While I was there, it became clear that digital technology in particular can boost women’s participation in economic life. And there is a lot to be done in this field. Women in the countries of the Global South are very much disadvantaged also with regard to digital technology: only 19 per cent of women have access to the Internet, compared to 31 per cent of men.

That has to change. Because when women have access to the internet it gives them the opportunity to get an education and build a career, participate in democratic processes and gain financial independence. And that is why we are putting a particular focus on building the digital skills of young people through vocational training programmes.

My visit to Rwanda showed me how eCommerce can enable owners of small-scale enterprises to improve their income with few resources. We need more such initiatives.

And I am very pleased, therefore, that Doreen Bogdan-Martin is with us today: the recently elected, first female Secretary-General in ITU’s 150-year history. She will now tell us more about our joint programmes for women and girls.

We know from experience that social change needs time and support. The digital transformation can only be successful if it is shaped, and can be shaped, by all people in society. It can help accelerate social and economic development. And it provides opportunities to implement a development policy that reaches people and civil society directly.

Democracy needs free media and freedom of opinion – and so does sustainable development. The BMZ is working for a free, open and inclusive internet. In this way we are strengthening democratic and human rights-based developments around the world. I am thinking of the women and men, and also the many schoolchildren, who are pushing for revolution in Iran. For them, the internet is the window to the world. In order to support people so they can browse the internet safely, identify false information and also protect their own content, there is the Digital Enquirer Kit, for example. With the Kit, the BMZ, together with the EU, is helping activists, journalists and also women and children to safely navigate the internet, and we would like to scale up the use of this tool.

To ensure that society can fully unleash its digital potential, we need to expand the required digital structures. With Global Gateway, the EU is using the right lever. But we are not just talking about broadband cables and satellites here but also about open-source software and data. The expansion and safe provision of digital public goods, like for example SORMAS, plays a central role for our development cooperation. That is why, with the GovStack project, we have made this a priority of our national Digital Strategy.

Ladies and gentlemen,

When it comes to digitalisation, one thing is important (and this is true for many other areas too): we need to learn from one another. And we should focus not on what separates us but on what is mutually rewarding. Let us develop a digital global mindset.

This event is a great start for that.

Thank you.