Development Cooperation Is Key to Shaping Digital Transformation, ESTDEV’s Panel Discussion at the Tallinn Digital Summit

The Tallinn Digital Summit 2023 brought together digitalization leaders from over 70 countries. Estonian Centre for International Development (ESTDEV) hosted a panel discussion, which focused on global partnerships for values-based digital development. 

The first wave of the digital revolution promised that new technologies would enable the advancement of democracy and human rights globally. The second wave, however, added new dimensions to the authoritarian playbook, allowing governments to manipulate public information, track citizens, and censor communications. Now, through diplomacy and development cooperation, democracies are scaling up efforts to ensure that the third wave of the digital revolution leads to a technological ecosystem that truly reinforces democratic principles and shared values. Development cooperation is key to shaping a just digital transformation.

The panel, moderated by Minna-Liina Lind, Undersecretary for Global Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Estonia, consisted of Jean Van Wetter, Director General of Enabel, Vera Zakem, Agency Chief Digital Democracy and Rights Officer of USAID, Axel Klaphake, Director of Economic and Social Development and Digitalisation of GIZ, and Katrin Winter, Regional Head for Africa at ESTDEV.

Axel Klaphake and Katrin Winter.Photo: Kevin Melk/ESTDEV

Advancing the digital transformation

The panel moderator Minna-Liina Lind started the discussion by asking the panelists about the nature of digital transformation and how its growth can impact the future of development cooperation.

The Director General of Enabel, Jean Van Wetter, explained Enabel’s experiences in Africa and how the success of digital transformation on the ground can not be easily measured due to potentially unstable governance structures (coup d’états, military takeovers, dictatorships). He did emphasise, however, that by focusing on the grassroots level and making the civil society a high priority, a fruitful and lasting collaboration can be built that benefits all the parties involved.

Vera Zakem, the Agency Chief Digital Democracy and Rights Officer of USAID echoed this notion and also added the human rights aspect to it. “Empowering the civil society and respecting human rights need to be at the forefront when creating a new digital ecosystem,” said Zakem.

Responsibly leveraging data and emerging technologies

The other big topic brought up was different aspects concerning responsibly leveraging data and emerging technologies. These included artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and big data for development and humanitarian assistance. Karin Maasel, Executive Director at Data Friendly Space, raised the question of how to democratize data and make it more accessible to everyone.

Axel Klaphake, the Director of Economic and Social Development and Digitalisation of GIZ, confessed that this is indeed an important topic that requires more collaboration amongst Western development cooperation agencies and also cooperation with the Global South. “Large language models in local languages are an underdeveloped part of the new wave of machine learning and AI that can be fixed with multilateral cooperation,” explained Klaphake.

The Regional Head of Africa at ESTDEV, Katrin Winter, added to this topic by saying that although ESTDEV is a young company and Estonia is relatively new in the development cooperation world, new and fresh ideas can spark innovation that are paramount to advancing digital transformation. “Since we have no legacy in development cooperation, we can do things in a new way. We like to say that we have 1,3 million employees who all want to make a difference and pass on our expertise,” said Winter.

From project-based to strategic collaboration

The participants concluded the panel by discussing the current state of development cooperation and its financing. It was unanimously agreed that education is key in creating global partnerships for values-based digital transformation.

“Citizenship education is the key. We need to make sure that people are aware of the risks and benefits of digital transformation. In the future, the African continent will have the best and talented workforce in the world, if we continue our targeted development cooperation,” explained Van Wetter.

“You cannot build a digital society without users, which means that system-building and education need to go hand in hand,” added Winter. Moreover, the judicial side of the future strategic collaborations to advance values-based digital transformation between development cooperation organisations and target countries was discussed. “In non-democratic countries the intentions of governments concerning data may differ from our beliefs but we need to make sure that regulation has to be enabling, not restricting,” said Winter.

Watch the recording of the discussion here:

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Estonian Centre for International Development is a government foundation that manages and implements Estonia’s participation in international development cooperation and humanitarian aid projects, with the aim of increasing Estonia’s contribution to global security and sustainable development.