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Are UN member states ready to unleash a digital revolution to achieve the SDGs?

Web Foundation · August 5, 2015

This September, world leaders will ratify the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), an agenda to “transform our world” by 2030. After months of wrangling, the final SDGs text, which will go to the UN General Assembly for ratification, has just been released.

The predecessors to the SDGs, the Millennium Development Goals, achieved a pretty mixed record from 2000 to 2015. The goal of universal primary education was almost achieved, but 60 million remain out of school. Global warming continued unabated. Shamefully, in the world’s poorest regions – Africa and South Asia – we failed to cut poverty and hunger by half by 2015.

This time around, can access to technology help to make the difference between failure and success as the world once again sets out to beat poverty and heal the planet?

After all, in 2000 when the MDGs were created, only 6.5% of the world had internet access, and only 10% had a mobile phone. Now, mobile penetration has reached an astonishing 97% and 43% of the world is online. Could technology finally make it possible to achieve education, healthcare, economic opportunities, and democratic participation for all?

Here are three signs of hope, together with areas where more pressure is still needed.

1. Clear commitment to universal and affordable Internet access by 2020 – but what about the gender gap?

Four in ten people online is a great start, but not enough to unlock the internet’s true development potential – especially because, as our 2014 Affordability Report shows, the majority of those offline are poor, female and live in low-income countries.

So it is great news that SDG 9 includes a target to “strive to provide universal and affordable access to the Internet in least developed countries by 2020”.

However, there is only a weak reference to “enhancing” the use of ICTs to “promote” women’s empowerment. This is wholly inadequate. In most countries, fewer women than men are connected, and when they do get online, they are more likely to face violence, harassment and invasions of privacy.

States must set concrete targets for achieving gender equity in ICT access, skills and use, and for ensuring that online misogyny does not restrict women’s rights to free expression and association.

2. Public access to information and fundamental freedoms upheld, but how will this be implemented?

SDG 16 commits member states to “develop effective, accountable and transparent institutions at all levels”. Many groups, including the Web Foundation, see this as the most critical weapon to beat poverty. Although Goal 16 is disappointingly vague overall, it is given a little more bite by the pledge to “ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms”.

In too many countries, secrecy, repression and intimidation are routinely used to prevent citizens holding governments or companies accountable. And, as our Web Index research shows, governments are increasingly moving to close down the new spaces that the internet has opened up for citizen engagement. When the rights to information, free expression and association are denied online or off, the internet becomes just another channel for politicians and elites to manipulate public opinion and spy on dissenters.

So the SDG commitment to access to information and fundamental freedoms is extremely important. But it must be translated into action at national level. We are calling for every country to follow Brazil’s example and develop a “bill of rights” for the internet to ensure that fundamental rights and freedoms are adequately protected online.

3. Call to increase the supply of timely, relevant data – but will it be open?

Without good data it will be impossible to allocate scarce taxpayer resources wisely to achieve the SDGs, or to measure progress. This is another area where digital tools can be a game-changer, and we’re pleased that the revised outcome document calls for more capacity-building support to developing countries to improve data availability.

Yet, if data remains locked up in bureaucrats’ filing cabinets, citizens can’t use it to hold governments accountable or influence spending priorities. This has been recognised by the new Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data, backed by the World Bank, the Gates Foundation and other major development actors. Yet, open data is not mentioned even once in the final SDG outcome document. The UN should follow the lead of the African Union, which stated in March 2015: “Official data belong to the people and should be open to all … by default ”


There is enormous potential for ICTs to help countries achieve the ambitious SDG agenda. However, ICTs are just that: tools for communication and information. They cannot do their part if governments stop some people from communicating or some information from flowing.  More pressure from civil society, ICT for development advocates, governments and private sectors  is needed if the real development magic of the internet – its power to give all citizens a say in how things are run – is to be unleashed in the fight to end poverty.

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