11 February 2021

Speakers Highlight Role of Digital Technology in Confronting COVID-19 Pandemic’s Ill Effects, as Social Development Commission Continues Session

Government ministers, senior officials and representatives of Member States underscored the myriad ways that their countries have embraced digital technology to confront the negative effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, as the Commission for Social Development resumed its general discussion today in a virtual format.

Speakers built upon the theme of the Commission’s fifty-ninth session — “a socially just transition towards sustainable development:  the role of digital technologies on social development and well-being of all” — to call for, among other things, multilateral action to help narrow the digital divide.  Several delegates also pressed for a fair and equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines worldwide.

General Discussion

Vindhya Persaud, Minister for Human Services and Social Security of Guyana, associating himself with the “Group of 77” developing countries and China, said that the pandemic and its attendant restrictions challenged the Government to find innovative ways of serving the public through digital technologies.  Her own Ministry introduced a virtual help desk to address a range of inquiries, as well as a toll-free emergency telephone number for reporting domestic violence and child abuse.  It also launched a virtual safe space for men to be candid about the issues that affect them.  She underscored the crucial role that a more digitally informed and connected population will play in attacking the scourge of poverty in the aftermath of the pandemic.  Emphasizing that “there is no place for vaccine nationalism”, she said that COVID-19 vaccines must be declared a global public good that is affordable and available to all.

Susanne Rabbe, Federal Minister for Women, Family, Youth and Integration of Austria, noting that her country’s COVID-19 relief package is among the highest in Europe, said the Government also introduced measures to support families with children, including €665 million paid as a bonus.  Apart from a digitalization boost in the education sector, wider use of e-health solutions can enhance the quality and cost-efficiency of health care, while digitization more broadly creates opportunities for people with disabilities, including by expanding their social networks and improving their access to information.  Most importantly, young people must be encouraged to participate in shaping their futures — and those of their countries, she said, before handing the floor to youth representative Isabella Steger, who said young people’s education and job opportunities have been diminished, and many suffer the psychological effects of lockdowns.  “Young people want to overcome the crisis mode,” she said, which requires “rethinking our economies” to combat inequalities.

Jamila El Moussali, Minister for Solidarity, Social Development, Equality and Family of Morocco, said that the pandemic consolidated her country’s determination and resolve to continue with open-ended task forces on social policy and information and communications technologies (ICT).  They focused on forging an economic model that aims to create jobs and foster sustainable development, alongside social development and cohesion.  She summarized a variety of initiatives that Morocco is pursuing for vulnerable groups, including older persons and persons with disabilities, and noted Morocco’s establishment of a special fund to address the implications of the pandemic through a people-centred approach.

Donna Cox, Minister for Social Development and Family Services of Trinidad and Tobago, said digitalization allows for impeccable planning through data-driven analysis, particularly when dealing with multiple populations.  While this has led to better, faster accessibility to services for the poor, these trends also have created a new class of poor — the digital poor — who, due to economic or geographic circumstances, are outside the mainstream of digital solutions.  Touching on Trinidad and Tobago’s National Social Mitigation Plan, which takes into account the impact of future economic downturns on the most vulnerable, she noted her Ministry’s use of information and communications technology in work to end poverty, promote full employment and foster social inclusion.  She cited initiatives to provide specially outfitted mobile devices for the visually and hearing impaired, free access to WiFi on public transport and in other public spaces, and kiosks in strategic locations to facilitate access to information on all Government services.  “We can choose to engage in a socially just transition to sustainable development where people — complemented by the increased utilization of digital technology — can be afforded the luxury of a more enhanced quality of life,” she said.

Gabriela Jimenéz, Minister of the People’s Power for Science and Technology of Venezuela, thanked China, Cuba, Iran, the Russian Federation and Turkey for extending support to her country to battle the pandemic.  She denounced the unilateral coercive measures imposed by the Government of the United States, saying they are impacting development for all Venezuelans.  The pandemic has demonstrated the importance of greater access to information and communications technologies, including more Internet coverage for distance education.  Underscoring her country’s commitment to multilateralism and the Sustainable Development, she said that free software is fundamental to closing the digital divide and promoting innovation and inclusion.

Maria Inés Castillo Lopez, Minister for Social Development of Panama, said that digitization, if it is universal and inclusive, can be an effective instrument for development.  The pandemic has shown the urgency of closing the digital gap, but for the moment, digital access has been heavily linked to income.  For Panama, technology made it possible to reduce the severity of COVID-19 lockdown measures.  She reviewed several initiatives adopted by her country, including a national programme to boost online access for tens of thousands of citizens in remote areas.  She went on to say that technical innovation should not be regarded as an end in itself but as a driver of social change, based on clear goals.

Rina Mohd Harun, Minister for Women, Family and Community Development of Malaysia, noting that the COVID-19 pandemic still hangs over the world “like a dark cloud”, said the unprecedented situation has led to a major economic slowdown.  Among Malaysia’s efforts to tackle the crisis have been several stimulus packages — including the most recent, valued at $3.7 billion — as well as health measures and programmes to transition towards a “new normal” that is more reliant on digital technologies.  A dedicated platform collected information on COVID-19 patients, helping to flatten the curve early in the pandemic.  Work is now under way to promote digital literacy among students and vulnerable groups, with more than 3.1 million student and 387,000 teachers using a new platform based on Google’s Suite for Education.  She also outlined digital outreach efforts aimed at women, people with disabilities and low-income groups, including a platform seeking to make income-generating opportunities accessible online.

Raul Romero, Minister for Social Development of Guatemala, associating himself with the Group of 77 and the Group of Friends of the Elderly, said that for a socially just transition out of the pandemic, Member States must strengthen social protection systems, adapted to national circumstances and with greater coverage for the most vulnerable.  He warned that the digital divide in many parts of the world could exacerbate existing socioeconomic inequalities and called for greater equality of capacity between States.  A priority for his country’s Government is to acquire more technological resources, but despite strategic alliances and donations from friendly countries, much remains to be done, he added.

Ergogie Tesfaye, Minister for Labour and Social Affairs of Ethiopia, said building her country’s information technology capacity is essential and requires an overhaul of its existing system.  Outlining a reform agenda to that end, which is accompanied by a new legal framework and strong cyberlaws, she spotlighted the agriculture, manufacturing and service sectors as priority areas.  Among other things, digitalization is already being used to facilitate labour inspection and occupational safety in workplaces and to deliver services to overseas employees through a new Ethio-Migrant Database.  Improved digital technology helps create more effective interaction among citizens, Government and the business community, while creating situations conducive to boosting productivity, social development and the well-being of society, she said.

Vladimir Handal, Secretary for Innovation of El Salvador, said that his country, like others, was not prepared for COVID-19, but the pandemic prompted it to act more quickly to adopt a digital culture.  “We have all had to reinvent ourselves and readjust our plans,” he said.  Noting that more than half the population is still offline, he said that efforts are under way to increase digital access and skills.  He added that El Salvador has provided $300 each in assistance to those citizens hardest hit by the pandemic.

Alexey V. Vovchenko, First Deputy Minister for Labour and Social Protection of the Russian Federation, said that with the onset of the pandemic, the number of people in his country working from home grew a hundredfold, a proportion which has since gone down somewhat.  In response, the Government amended the labour code to equalize the rights of both remote and on-site workers.  He added that the Russian Federation is digitizing human resources documentation, making it possible to reduce costs while also freeing citizens from having to provide employment details when applying for Government services.  He went on to emphasize the central role of the United Nations in the area of intergovernmental cooperation on social development, with the Commission for Social Development retaining its responsibility for youth, older persons and persons with disabilities.

Priscilla Roberta Gaspar de Oliveira, Vice Minister for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities of Brazil, delivered her statement in sign language, saying that digital technology must be made accessible to all segments of society.  Legislation in that regard has been adopted in her country for those with hearing impediments.  A youth representative said that if young people are to be viewed as a valuable human resource, then a national youth secretariat — like the one launched in Brazil — is justified.  Two other senior officials discussed Brazil’s national programme for healthy and active ageing and its national strategy for strengthening family ties.

Tamila Barkalaia, Deputy Minister for Internally Displaced Persons from the Occupied Territories, Labour, Health and Social Affairs of Georgia, said that the pandemic has highlighted the importance — and the possibilities — of digital technology to ensure the delivery of fundamental social services.  Previously face-to-face services are now carried out through remote access and numerous online platforms make it possible to identify vulnerable groups.  She also noted the introduction of a COVID-19 tracking app and Government efforts to extend telemedicine services into remote areas.

Rosemarie G. Edillon, Undersecretary for Policy and Planning, National Economic and Development Authority of the Philippines, touched on a World Bank study, titled “Philippines Digital Economy Report 2020”, which found that the use of digital payments, e-commerce, telemedicine and online education has helped individuals, businesses and the Government cope with social distancing measures, ensure business continuity and deliver public services during the pandemic.  The challenge now is to expand the adoption of digital technology, with Governments leading by example, notably in the field of health care, where the Philippines Department of Health promoted its use to alleviate the virus surge.  The massive rollout of digital infrastructure and ensuring its quality and affordability require more than just the availability of finance.  In the Philippines, this was primarily hindered by the lack of market competition among service providers, she said, noting that the Government is expediting implementation of the National Broadband Plan, and aims to lay the backbone of connectivity network across the country through the deployment of fibre optic cables and wireless technologies.

Diego Pacheco Balanza, Vice Minister of Planning and Coordination of Bolivia, said digital technologies help countries facilitate social inclusion, protect the environment and Mother Earth, achieve food security, and make wide contributions to medicine, education and other services.  At the same time, “it only works theoretically”, he said, noting that digital technology has been a differentiating factor in inequality.  Today, it is mainly the hands of the private sector, however the conditions must be created for it to become progressively become a common good, which would require the agreement of developed countries.  Stressing that post-COVID-19 recovery will require the universalization of technology, he said this revolution must be accelerated, with an “epic” sense of solidarity.  He called for enhancing the capacity of developing countries, noting that in Bolivia, technology will be in the hands of the State, guaranteeing its more equitable use.  Bolivia has taken the first steps to modernize the State with a vision of ICTs that allows for their comprehensive integration into various areas of life, he said, underscoring the Government’s commitment to strengthening the technology revolution as a fundamental process in fulfilling Bolivia’s vision for living in harmony with Mother Earth.

Olga Revuk, Deputy Minister for Social Policy of Ukraine for European Integration, recalled that, in 2017, her Government adopted a concept for the development of e-government in the country and approved a related action plan, while also adopting a law on electronic trust services.  In 2019, it established the Ministry for Digital Transformation to ensure the development and implementation of State policy in the digital sphere.  Among the key goals of those changes was to enable better Internet accessibility for consumers and businesses; create the appropriate conditions for regulating advanced digital networks; and build up the digital economy through investment, interoperability and standardization.  During the COVID-19 pandemic, a national online platform has been used to provide support for childbirth assistance, the reimbursement of childcare expenses and the provision of housing subsidies, among other services.  Another central challenge is to transfer the administration of social services to territorial communities, she said, noting that 470 such communities have already joined a national programme for that purpose.

Pauline Irène Nguene Nee Kendeck, Minister for Social Affairs of Cameroon, said the Government has taken various institutional measures to promote digital emergence by 2025, linked with the fight against poverty, socioeconomic integration and the inclusion of vulnerable groups.  She highlighted “Digital Cameroon 2020”, a framework based on developing a local industry and promoting human capital and leadership.  All such sectors receive State support.  In the area of education, for example, 500,000 computers have been made available for schools and digital centres established within universities.  She also spotlighted a national measure for small- and medium-sized enterprises, as well as reforms to administrative services, which include the digitization of tax procedures and national archives.  The fight against inequality through digitization requires looking at the interlinked challenges ahead, she said, and reducing the gap between those who are connected and those who are not, notably between rural and urban areas.

Ione Belarra, Secretary of State for the 2030 Agenda of Spain, said the world must avoid the risk that millions more people fall into poverty because of the pandemic, advocating for gender equality that is truly effective in order to reduce the digital divide in work, care and decision-making.  “We’re moving in this direction”, she said, calling more broadly for strengthened multilateralism, as a platform from which to address the challenges ahead.  Highlighting national efforts, she said Spain established a “social shield” to ensure no one is left behind, focused intently on the social pillar as a key to emerging from the pandemic.  Everyone’s needs must be adequately covered, while also ensuring a just ecological transition.  Efforts to strengthen the health system and guarantee education and decent work for all will be enhanced by new technologies, she said, stressing that digitalization must help the world accelerate the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.  Technology should help to strengthen workers’ rights, not limit them.

Jukka Salovaara (Finland), speaking also for Singapore and Mexico as Co-Chairs of the Group of Friends of Digital Technologies, recalled that 57 per cent of the world’s people — 3.6 billion — remain offline, unable to take advantage of the enormous economic and social benefits of the Internet.  Noting that the Commission can provide guidance on the social development aspects of digital technologies through its resolution on the priority theme, he highlighted the importance of providing safe, affordable access for women and girls, the elderly, persons with disabilities, indigenous groups and people living in poor, remote or rural areas.  He urged the Commission to take note of the Secretary-General’s Roadmap for Digital Cooperation, recognizing the importance of implementing the Addis Ababa Action Agenda and reaffirming support for its Technology Facilitation Mechanism.  He also encouraged the Commission to adopt a comprehensive approach to digital technologies, considering the links between social development, the economy, the environment, international cooperation and human rights.

The representative of China advocated respect for multilateralism and global governance, as well as safeguarding the international system with the United Nations at its core.  Countries must share benefits in efforts to adapt the global governance system to evolving global dynamics.  For its part, China will extend full support to the Commission, he said, calling for enhancing scientific cooperation and promoting innovative development.  Guided by sustainable development, countries should work together to create an open, fair and non-discriminatory system for scientific and technological advancement that is accessible and shared by all.  Countries also must close the digital divide, as 87 per cent of people in developed countries are online compared with only 19 per cent in least developed countries.  The latter countries, therefore, require more resources and investment in digital infrastructure in order to make the Internet universally affordable and accessible.  Moreover, the potential of young people must also be harnessed, he said, expressing concern that those between 15 and 24 years of age account for 20 per cent of the global population living in extreme poverty.

The representative of Poland underscored the vital role played by trade unions and employers’ organizations in examining the influence of climate and other factors on society.  She cited the polarization of job loss as a major problem, along with difficulties related to retraining or improving qualifications for high-paying professions.  Poland’s artificial intelligence policy aims to support transformation of the work environment and improvement of competencies, taking into account human dignity and fair competition. 

The representative of Lebanon pointed out that almost half of the world population does not use the Internet.  Connectivity is a crucial goal, as digital technologies have been vital to all aspects of the pandemic response, from telecommuting, to ecommerce to distance learning.  Indeed, 1.3 billion children do not have an Internet connection in their homes, according to a joint report by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), depriving them from their right to education.  For Lebanon, a national distance learning strategy was formulated, however it has been extremely difficult to implement in evolving conditions.

The representative of South Africa said that last week, his country’s Government received 1 million doses of the Covishield vaccine from India, developed by AstraZenica and the University of Oxford.  Noting that South Africa is among the first countries to carry out clinical trials of that vaccine, he urged Member States not to engage in vaccine nationalism.  Instead, they should enable all countries to get timely access to quality vaccines, medicines and essential health technologies.  Turning to digital technologies, he said that relevant policies must address both skills and affordable access.  States must also be vigilant against the use of digital technologies to misinform the public, he added.

The representative of Kyrgyzstan outlined various changes made to the provision of social services, noting that new technologies have made it possible for socially vulnerable groups to abandon demands for certificates in order to receive social services.  Systems now work in unity, allowing for inquiries to be made by a public exchange.  Digital technologies have expanded access to social services for the socially vulnerable, while minimizing the risks of corruption.  Digitalization is being introduced to Kyrgyzstan’s tax and custom procedures, and has already enabled changes to the enrolment of first graders, she said, citing other multilingual platforms, digital education platforms for supplementary learning and the establishment of a national platform for open learning and digital resources.  With such changes, the Government has worked to end red tape and reduce the time needed to receive services.  

The representative of Japan called for societies in which people can choose services to meet their own needs, noting that his country is looking into various legislative changes.  Digital transformation harmonized with the human security principles can enhance the well-being of everyone, he said, noting that advances such as tele-medicine and secure financial transactions were unthinkable just a decade ago.  Countries must ensure digital literacy, which is a prerequisite for a knowledge-based digital society.  A reliable framework that enables reliable data distribution is also important, he observed.

The representative of Namibia, associating himself with the African Group and the Group of 77 and China, said the world did not foresee the COVID-19 pandemic when it set the ambitious Sustainable Development Goal targets in 2015.  The virus plunged the world into an acute health and economic crisis, disproportionately affecting some countries and compounding challenges such as high debt burdens, reduced fiscal revenue, capital outflows and lack of access to financial markets.  While the potential of digital technologies in development has long been clear, the pandemic has further spotlighted it, along with the urgency of bridging the digital divide.  Digital infrastructure and services must therefore be made available on an equitable and non-discriminatory basis, provided as efficiently and economically as possible.  Such access must also be made safe, gender-equitable and viable for both rural and urban communities, he said, adding: “We must ensure … that rapid technological changes do not entrench existing inequalities or create new ones.”

Also speaking today were representatives and youth delegates of Algeria, Switzerland, Slovenia, Mexico, Ecuador, Cuba, Indonesia and Luxembourg.

For information media. Not an official record.