12 February 2021

Digital Technologies, New Infrastructure Essential for Protecting, Servicing Vulnerable Communities, Panellists Tell Social Development Commission

The Commission for Social Development held a multi-stakeholder forum today, with panellists from around the globe exploring how to surmount the myriad fissures in social service provision by harnessing the use of digital technologies and laying new infrastructures that cater to the most vulnerable communities.

In those efforts, Asmundur Einar Dadason, Iceland’s Minister for Social Affairs and Children, underscored the need for the international community, national and local governments, the private sector, academia, civil society, disadvantaged groups and philanthropic institutions to work as one.  “Investment in social protection can be one of the most profitable investments Governments can make,” he said in his keynote address.  “We need to apply well-tested methods combined with innovative solutions.”

Driving that point home, panellist Komal Ahmad, Founder and CEO of Copia — a company that redistributes high-quality excess food to those most in need — cited World Food Programme (WFP) estimates that 40 per cent of food produced goes into landfills.  “Hunger is not a scarcity problem,” she said.  “It is a logistics problem,” which Copia is working to solve by leveraging existing distribution networks to deliver food from restaurant kitchens to households, through the tap of a phone.

Panellist Taliah Drayak, co-founder of the International Parent Advocacy Network, described various experiences of how quickly people can lose digital access, particularly in the family court system, where parents without Internet struggle to complete assignments set for them during virtual meetings.  “Without the first access point, all the other doors slam shut,” she said.  “Even well-designed policies are meaningless if people in poverty cannot access them.” 

Joining Ms. Ahmad and Ms. Drayak as panellists were other top experts from government, academia and organizations related to business, who described ways to leverage digital technologies to better connect the world’s most vulnerable people to the vital services they need.

The Commission for Social Development will reconvene at 10 a.m., on Monday, 15 February, to continue its fifty-ninth session.

Multi-stakeholder Forum

The Commission’s half-day meeting featured a Multi-stakeholder Forum on the priority theme “Socially just transition towards sustainable development:  the role of digital technologies on social development and well-being of all”.

Moderated by Deborah Stine, President of Science, Technology and Innovation Policy Analysis and Education and Founder and Chief Instructor for the Science and Technology Policy Academy, it featured presentations by Vanesa Wainstein, Special Adviser on International Affairs of the Ministry of Social Development of Argentina; Xing Wei, Director of the Social Affairs Department of the Institute of Social Development of the Academy of Macroeconomic Research, National Development and Reform Commission of China; Susan Segal, President and Chief Executive Office of the Americas Society and Council of the Americas; Komal Ahmad, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Copia; and Taliah Drayak, co-founder of the International Parent Advocacy Network and of the Parents, Families and Allies Network.  Asmundur Einar Dadason, Minister for Social Affairs and Children of Iceland, was the keynote speaker.

María del Carmen Squeff (Argentina), Commission Chair, delivered opening remarks, saying that the degree of inequality exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that it was a mistake to scale back social protection schemes.  Underscoring the widening digital gap, she said that all States bear a crucial responsibility to implement inclusive policies and, in doing so, engage with all stakeholders, including the private sector and civil society.

Mr. DADASON underscored the need to work together across sectors and to redesign policies that secure greater well-being and equality.  Stressing that equitable access to digital technologies is vital to ensuring social inclusion, he said a socially just transition towards sustainable development must involve a new way of thinking about economic activity and growth.  “We need to achieve national and global economies that focus on achieving sustainable advances for human well-being,” he said, cautioning against measuring economic growth exclusively by standard monetary measures.  This requires looking away from the standard narrow perspective towards re-balancing economic, social, and environmental objectives.

He explained that it is indeed possible to protect people and safeguard economies at the same time, noting that investment in social protection can be one of the most profitable investments Governments can make.  “We need to apply well-tested methods combined with innovative solutions,” he said, with the international community, national and local governments, the private sector, academia, civil society, disadvantaged groups and philanthropic institutions working as one.  “This calls for a renewed commitment to multilateralism and a strong commitment to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development,” he said.

Touching on various initiatives taken in Iceland, including a bill to strengthen children’s well-being, he went on to say that a socially just transition requires patient sustainable investment, which can yield an exponential increase in well-being, as well as economic growth for national economies.  “But we must be ready to give that transition time and focus beyond narrow measures of economic growth in the short-term,” he said.  He emphasized the importance of technology and political commitment from the international community to bridge the digital divide, and that any plans for bridging the digital divide must be part of initiatives to fulfill the 2030 Agenda.  “We need to work together — across the private and public sectors, national and local governments, adults and children alike,” he said.

Ms. WAINSTEIN said that the Government of Argentina, faced with the pandemic, sought to halt the economic decline through a series of inclusive social policies that were quickly implemented.  Prior to the pandemic, 8 million people, mostly women and children, were getting food assistance through a national food card scheme, a number that has risen to 11 million due to COVID-19.  That scheme was an example of how technology can be used for social development.  She added that Argentina is looking to expand digital access, and that technology can and must be seen as a path to emerge out of poverty.  Access to information and communications technologies (ICT) is a human right and a global public good that is also an effective strategy to pull people out of poverty.  She went on to say that a society with higher levels of education and better information is a society that will be more equal.  Those with the fewest opportunities must be at the heart of post-pandemic policies and efforts, she said, adding that Argentina is willing to share its experiences with others.

Mr. XING said digital technologies help to ensure equal enjoyment of social services and well-being, stressing that the application of such technologies has expanded the supply of public social service resources, such as digital libraries, virtual museums and other cultural events.  For its part, China has promoted information and communications technology (ICT) development in schools, elderly care facilities and sports centres, among other places, he said, noting that it has also widened the scope of its services to education.  Among other initiatives, China has improved the matching between resources and demand.  Cloud platforms were opened to help middle school and other students take part in home study.  Digitally integrated network development can help address imbalances in services provided to urban and rural areas.  China also promotes construction of Internet services through various projects and encourages the establishment of remote service systems, as well as training for grassroots organizations.  In the area of health care, he said there are more than 900 Internet hospitals across the country, while a tele-medicine collaboration network covers over 5,500 hospitals.

Ms. SEGAL highlighted gender gap figures to consider while thinking about economic recovery.  She called for expanding technology in the Latin American and Caribbean region, noting that the International Labour Organization (ILO) found that 34 million jobs have been lost to COVID-19.  Women are among the most affected, she said, noting that 126 million women in the region work in the informal sector, which has been most impacted.  According to the World Bank, 39 per cent of women in the region closed their businesses, compared with 29 per cent of men.  There is an evident decline in female labour force participation, which contracted 10.4 per cent.  Since women overall are paid less than men, they generally have been expected to stop their work to care for children and sick family members.  Women’s economic gains in recent years are being lost, impacting productivity and economic growth, she said, stressing that recovery will be ensured only by bringing women back into the work force.  She recommended that Governments work with the private sector on job training and creation, with the private sector taking the lead in training women on tele-services and coding, and with centres created to ensure companies hire and train more women.  Governments should also invest in providing children with technology, she added.

Ms. DRAYAK described the situation of a women in a drug rehabilitation centre, who was accustomed to using a WiFi hotspot to access the Internet.  However, when that hotspot access was no longer available, her social worker never thought to ask if she could afford more phone data.  “Everything to keep you afloat is online,” she said, adding:  “Even well-designed policies are meaningless if people in poverty cannot access them.”  The problem is also seen in the family court system, where most meetings are held remotely and parents without access struggle to complete the assignments set for them.  “Without the first access point, all the other doors slam shut,” she emphasized, noting that when a person only has a phone, he or she cannot access documents online.  Such experiences demonstrate that the loss of human contact in “going virtual” makes it difficult for parents in poverty to care for their children and families.  She underscored the need for systems to justly and holistically help families overcome the challenges they face.

In the ensuing dialogue, delegates and civil society representatives explored ways to use digital technologies as a way to surmount obstacles to providing social services, with a speaker from Bahai International Community stressing that Internet access is a means to participate in education and health, and thus, indeed vital.  He reminded participants that connectivity is not the end in itself — dignity and wellbeing are the objectives.

A speaker from Soroptimist International cited a global trafficking report, which found that Internet-based trafficking has grown more varied, amid reports of criminals making use of “the dark web” to expand their networks.  She asked panelists how to ensure that gender equality gains are not lost.

Ms. AHMAD said her organization is on track to feed 5 million people with gourmet food in 2021, comparable to the entire population of New Zealand.  Stressing that the World Food Programme (WFP) expects the number of food insecure to double from 135 million to 300 million people, she said 40 per cent of food produced goes into landfills.  “The stark reality is exactly what makes this one of the world’s dumbest problems,” she said.  Behind the hunger crisis is inequitable distribution.  “Hunger is not a scarcity problem,” she said.  “It is a logistics problem.”  To address the issue, Copia is bridging the gap between those with technology access and those without, shortcutting the hurdles and directly connecting both sides of the market.  Businesses can request pickups with a tap of their phone and have them safely delivered to organizations in their area.  Copia provides data and analytics to reduce food waste and carbon dioxide emissions and has helped businesses save $21 million to date.  Emphasizing that over 46 per cent more people in the United States are going hungry today because of COVID-19, she said Copia raised philanthropic capital to employ local restaurants, helping to revive their kitchens to make thousands of meals daily, and delivering high-quality restaurant meals to those most at risk to COVID-19.  This drove an additional 500,000 meals into various cities in need.  She called for an evolution in the current mindset, stressing that “whatever resources your country has available is enough to spark progress today.”

Also speaking in the Forum were the representatives of Argentina and Senegal, among others.

For information media. Not an official record.