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Closing Digital Divide, Creating Human-Centred Cybernature Space Key for Tackling Global Challenges, Deputy Secretary-General Tells Nigeria Directors’ Institute

Following are UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed’s remarks, as prepared for delivery, to the Nigeria Institute of Directors, in Abuja, Nigeria today:

It is a great privilege to be with you today.  I would like to begin by thanking the Nigeria Institute of Directors for this opportunity.

We meet at a truly difficult time for our world.  We are seeing a series of cascading and interlinked global crises related to conflict, COVID‑19, climate disasters and surging food and energy prices.  All of these are combining to knock the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) off track and threaten lives and livelihoods everywhere, particularly in developing countries.

Yet, despite these trends, I also believe that we are on the cusp of a period of immense opportunity.  We see it in the growing demand for renewable energy and in breakthroughs in science.  We see it in Africa’s women who are carving new paths of economic participation and leadership and challenging traditional patriarchal norms.  And we see it in the incredible ingenuity, ambition and commitment of the world’s young people.

Tying these reasons for optimism together is technology and digitalization.  I am pleased that this is the focus of our discussion today because we are in the midst of a powerful, global, digital transformation.  One that is — in turn — transforming our societies and our economies.

In health, mobile apps are supporting prevention efforts and early diagnosis of life-threatening diseases.  In education, amidst a global pandemic, digital learning solutions and open educational resources ensured that teaching could continue remotely.  In agriculture, smartphones have improved market access by providing smallholder farmers with real-time commodity pricing.  In finance, digital IDs and mobile wallets have provided access to financial services for millions of unbanked people.  The same is true in so many other areas, from communications to politics.

But this digital revolution is not without its risks, nor is it benefiting everyone equally.  We must build an open, inclusive and responsible digital ecosystem.  This requires a concerted effort across public and private sectors, and cooperation at the regional and global levels.  As industry leaders, you have a critical role to play — understanding risks, taking responsibility, engaging in policy-making, supporting public private partnerships and more.

At the United Nations, we see three main pillars for attention in every country: connectivity, data, and human rights.

First, on connectivity.  We have seen a rapid acceleration of Internet connectivity in Nigeria, growing from 5 per cent to 35 per cent in just the last 15 years.  This is a good result, but a digital divide is fast emerging where women are less likely to be connected than men.  Urban areas are more connected than rural ones.  And young people tend to be more digitally literate than older adults.

The Transforming Education Summit, convened by the United Nations Secretary-General last September underscored that if harnessed properly, the digital revolution could be one of the most powerful tools for ensuring quality education for all and transforming the way teachers teach and learners learn.  But if not, it could exacerbate inequalities and undermine learning outcomes, as the pandemic made all too apparent.

To address this, we will need new policies that accelerate and incentivize connectivity.  We will need interconnected platforms to ensure equitable access to digital learning resources.  We will need to strengthen infrastructure and expand access to sustainable energy as renewables have the potential to substantially fill the access gap and create a system less prone to market shocks.  And we will need to forge new and innovative public-private partnerships.

One such initiative is the new partnership between Jumia and the United Nations Giga initiative, which aims to connect every school to the Internet by 2030.  Jumia’s data science capacity will offer Giga insights into the economic benefits of increased connectivity and anonymized data will help map school locations across key countries.

The second pillar is better data.  Digital data could soon become the world’s most lucrative commodity.  It is already shaping entire sectors and driving business strategies. And if used well, it can drive progress right across SDGs.  Consider food systems, for example.  Digital data can boost yields, reduce farm management costs, improve access to markets, lower transaction costs, and strengthen traceability.

In short, digital data is key not just to measure progress, but to actually make progress towards SDGs.  It is the lifeblood of planning.  Only with accurate, timely, and disaggregated data can we comprehensively assess the challenges we face, identify the most appropriate solutions, manage resources and target investment.  Of course, we are aware that data — whether gathered online or otherwise — can be misused to devastating effect.  So it is essential that we foster the safe and responsible use of data.

This brings me to the third pillar — striving for a human-centred digital space.  This begins with the protection of free speech, freedom of expression and the right to online autonomy and data privacy.  It is critical that digital policies and laws reflect this.  But free speech is not a free pass.  Technology companies and social media platforms have a responsibility to prevent online bullying and deadly disinformation that undermines democracy, human rights and science.  It is clear that the task of securing a safe, sustainable and equitable digital world cannot be handled by any one country or company.  Global guardrails and global support are crucial.

To address this, the Secretary-General has proposed a Global Digital Compact, to be signed by governments at a Summit of the Future in September 2024.  We envisage a Compact that can accelerate funding commitments for global internet connectivity, agree on data sharing and privacy, and bring coherence to human rights in the digital space, especially for women and girls, who experience much higher levels of harassment online.  This online violence, in addition to its individual and health impacts, is having knock on impacts on women’s participation in public space.

Countries around the world can leverage this global agreement to build interoperable national frameworks, customized to the needs of their populations.  The Secretary-General wants to engage with all stakeholders on these important issues as Member States work to shape this new Compact.

As private sector leaders, you have a crucial role.  Businesses can increase performance and profits, while advancing sustainable community development by committing to socially responsible practices.

This at the heart of the United Nations Global Compact’s Ten Principles on environment, gender equality, human rights, labour, and anti-corruption that provide a roadmap for companies to increase business competitiveness, while furthering the SDGs.  We are already putting this into practice through the United Nations Global Compact’s Africa Strategy, which is harnessing the power of business to be a force for good.

In September, I also convened the Global Africa Business Initiative, which is designed to place Africa in its proper spot on the world stage, bringing to focus a roadmap for Africa that is sustainable, inclusive, just, and managed by Africans for Africans.

At the Twenty-Seventh Session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP27) in Egypt, the Global Compact Africa Strategy’s Africa Business Leaders Coalition enabled the African private sector to speak with one voice.  The Africa Business Leaders Coalition  mobilized 56 businesses collectively generating $150 billion in combined revenues and employing more than 1 million people to make tangible commitments around adaptation and resilience, a just transition and mitigation.

We are at an incredible inflection point — one where we either break down or break through as a global community.  An open, safe, and sustainable digital future is central to that breakthrough.

Key convenings including the SDG Summit in 2023 and the Summit of the Future in 2024, will be critical opportunities to raise our collective ambition to deliver the 2030 Agenda and to secure a Global Digital Compact.  For these moments to mark a genuine turning point for Sustainable Development Goal implementation efforts, it will be critical to ensure that the means of implementation are there.

This transformation will require strengthened governance and strong institutions, application of science and technology for the benefit of all, greater commitments for financing for development and stronger partnerships with key stakeholders including the private sector.  I count on your continued innovation, engagement and leadership.

The United Nations stands ready to collaborate, co-convene, and co-create solutions for the future we want.

For information media. Not an official record.