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From top to bottom, all photos cropped from originals: © Ella, CC BY NC 2.0, Sean MacEntee, CC BY 2.0, Ninara, CC BY 2.0, Adam Meek, CC BY 2.0

From top to bottom, all photos cropped from originals: © Ella, CC BY NC 2.0, Sean MacEntee, CC BY 2.0, Ninara, CC BY 2.0, Adam Meek, CC BY 2.0

The ABCs of the SDGs

Web Foundation · September 24, 2015

This week, world leaders adopt a new set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that aim to “Transform our World”.

Despite seismic changes since 2000, when the UN agreed the last set of global development goals, only two of the 169 SDG targets relate to the global spread of digital information and communication technologies (ICTs).  So why should the tech community care? And what does the tech community have to contribute?

The answer is that equitable and empowering technology can provide the ABCs (and O) of the SDGs.


A is for Accountability

Goal 16 commits UN member states to “build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions.” It is the hardest won of all the goals, but probably the most important. Unless and until those in power are accountable to the poor and marginalised, poverty will persist.

Technology can change the game in many ways — by giving a larger voice to excluded groups; allowing citizens to organise and access information effectively, even under the watchful eye of repressive regimes; and making it much easier to pierce the veil of secrecy that surrounds dodgy corporate and political dealings.

As our founder Tim Berners-Lee has said, the open Web is “vital to democracy, and now more critical to free expression than any other medium.” Yet almost 40% of countries censor politically or socially sensitive Web content. In 84% of countries, citizens cannot be sure that security agencies are not arbitrarily listening in to their private conversations. Our Web We Want campaign is fighting for national “bills of rights” for the digital era to protect our human rights online.

Another crucial tool for strengthening democracy is open data — the practice of publishing key public datasets online, free of charge, in reusable formats. Open data allows anyone to monitor government progress, spot corruption and waste, or propose new solutions to civic challenges.

As a founding champion of the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data, we will help lead the development of an International Open Data Charter to galvanise political commitment to make government data “open by design” in every country.


B is for Broadband

Nearly 60% of the planet has no access to the Internet, and in the world’s least developed countries, just one in 10 people is connected. Online opportunities to improve one’s education, income, social capital and political voice are concentrated in the hands of those who are rich, male, urban and living in affluent countries.  

When the MDGs were adopted, it was a scandal that over 40% of children were not in school. Dedicated campaigning closed this gap. Today, the digital divide is an injustice demanding equally urgent action.

So, it is critically important that Goal 9 includes a target to “strive to provide universal and affordable access to the Internet in least developed countries by 2020”.

The technology and infrastructure needed to connect everyone already exists. Unnecessarily high consumer costs are the greatest obstacle. Internet access in developing countries costs ten times more (in relative terms) than in the rich world.

Through the Alliance for Affordable Internet — a global policy, research and advocacy coalition — we are pushing for more competition and innovation in telecommunications markets, so as to get prices down and enable all of the people to access all of the Internet, all of the time.


C is for Choices

Amartya Sen defines development as “a process of expanding the real freedoms that people enjoy” — the freedom to make choices and the capabilities to put them into action. But for half of humanity, gender discrimination whittles away these freedoms. The real potential of technology lies in empowering women, and other marginalised groups, to make their own choices. The mobile phone and the Internet are changing the rules of who women can interact with, what they know, who they can be, and how they get heard. The open Web is a precious tool for women to understand, demand and achieve their rights, and we need to make sure they can use it as fully as men, without fear of harassment or abuse.

There is a long way to go, however. It is estimated that 25% fewer women than men use the Webin developing countries. 74% of countries fail to take effective action against gender-based violence online. Only 30% of countries have included satisfactory gender equity targets in their national ICT plans.

The SDG drafters were right on the money, therefore, in adopting a target for enhancing women’s empowerment through ICTs. Our Women’s Rights Online network is producing new evidence that can help governments to close these gaps and maximise women’s empowerment through ICTs.


O is for Open

There is one word that sums up better than any other the difference technology could make to the SDGs: Openness.

The SDGs’ predecessors, the MDGs, did not make real impact on how governments actually allocated budgets — perhaps because they were widely perceived as a top-down agenda imposed by aid donors.

By contrast, the process for negotiating the SDGs has been praised as participatory and inclusive, giving all UN member states a say. Greater ownership may mean greater impact.

But when it comes to ownership, why stop with national governments? Digital technologies create the opportunity for development processes that are truly owned by all. ICTs could be used to involve all citizens in setting local, regional and national goals based on the global ones. They could enable citizens to participate in deciding on plans and budgets for achieving those goals. Open data and digital tools could make it easy for stakeholders to monitor spending and progress in real time. An open Web, free of censorship and spying, would encourage people to freely criticise failures and voice alternatives online, resulting in faster progress and better results.

In short, our dream is to see an open Web, open data and open technology turning development into an open process — empowering citizens to participate freely and fully in decisions affecting them, and unlocking the creativity of all towards the SDGs vision of “Transforming Our World”.

If you share this vision and would like to receive updates on our progress, you can sign-up to receive our newsletter, or follow us on Twitter @webfoundation and Facebook.

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