Unequal access to connectivity, digital tools and digital skills has been driving a wedge between societies over the last few decades; something the pandemic has exaggerated. On the flipside, digital access can be a great leveler, for example by digitizing education and increasing access to learning.
Bangladesh provides a relevant case study. Eight years ago, 23 teachers contacted a2i, the government’s flagship digital transformation programme supported by UNDP, reporting that teachers training needed to be improved and made more regular (at the time teachers accessed training every 10 to 15 years).
The a2i Programme created a solution in the form of a social media-based, peer-to-peer teachers training platform, with user-generated content. Today, nearly 590,000 teachers are part of the Teacher’s Portal, with over 700,000 pieces of educational content that can be accessed by anyone with a connected tablet.
There are significant aid efforts to build schools in Africa; less so to train teachers. A chronic teacher shortage faces the continent, with 19.6 million teachers needing to be hired. One of the biggest obstacles to becoming a teacher is access to training. Large-scale, government-backed peer-to-peer social networks, modeled on the a2i teacher’s portal, could work to reduce the barriers to entry for African teachers and improve the quality of education across the continent. This will in turn stimulate the economy and reduce youth unemployment.
The latter benefit is key: Africa is the only region where the youth bulge will continue to grow in the foreseeable future, presenting the continent with an opportunity to reap the demographic dividend. But this also presents a threat to social cohesion as growing youth unemployment can fuel crime and trigger mass migration, leading to heightened local and international tensions.
The internet has broken down the usual barriers to entry for young people to develop digital skills that can be ‘exported’ internationally. This is creating new livelihood potential for those who would previously rely on the local, poorly-paid (or altogether absent) employment opportunities.
a2i recognized this and joined forces with UNDP to enable refugees to open a bank account, learn digital skills and link them with online freelancing jobs on sites like Fiverr to generate an income. The only prerequisite is a device and an internet connection. Africa’s 24 million refugees and displaced could benefit from a similar solution.
Digital education programmes and private-sector investment should be used to create remote-working digital ecosystems in Africa, enabling young people to break the cycle of unemployment and enable them to inject foreign capital into their communities and local economies.
Another way to promote digitization in Africa is to encourage public-private partnerships on the ground to deliver decentralized public services. In Africa, an inability to access simple state services means that millions are left without identity registration, passports, visas or the ability to register land records, creating a blockage for rural development.
In the eight years since, over 100 services have been added, including banking and e-commerce, and public services like passport applications and exam result collection. There are now nearly 7,000 of these one-stop shops across the country, used by 6 million people each month.
Both the continent of Africa and Bangladesh still have the ghosts colonization embedded within their civil services. They have remained complex because that was historically the only way for a few thousand to govern hundreds of millions of citizens. This has knock-on effects for education systems, training, and economies.
Bangladesh has established a strong, proven track record in leapfrogging the country through the Digital Bangladesh initiatives. The ingredients of success for a2i in Bangladesh can be replicated quickly and easily in other Southern developing countries. As we speak, we have teams in the Philippines, Fiji, Jordan, Turkey, Yemen and Somalia introducing similar systems.
The South-South Network for Public Service Innovation (SSN4PSI), offers a global collaborative platform where governments, private sector organizations, civil society organizations, and academics exchange knowledge, experiences, and expertise.
Just as rapid digitization has helped Bangladesh leapfrog traditional barriers to development by reconfiguring its services and achieve record growth, facilitated by South-South cooperation, it can do the same for many economies in Africa.