Photo: shutterstock.com/ Sashkin

In the United Nation’s 2020 e-Government Survey, released on July 10, Ukraine placed 69th in the world, with an E-Governance Develop Index, or EGDI, of 0.7119. In the last report from two years ago, the country ranked 82nd with an EGDI of 0.6165. Ukraine's EGDI, as two years before, is comfortably above the current global average of 0.6 (0.55 in 2018).  While Ukraine has done much over the last two years to achieve this progress, the continued global coronavirus crisis, which started only a few months ago, has also greatly accelerated its digital transformation agenda, and we should expect more progress when the UN issues its next report.

Indeed, it is one of the great ironies that, while being so detrimental to human development in general, the pandemic has propelled digital transformation. Suddenly, people around the world were required to work remotely, and found that the tools for them to do so were already available – not perfect but improving. Global tech giants, as well as smaller start-ups, have been quick to come to the fore with their tools. This mitigated the pandemic's consequences for many professionals, who found they were able to continue work at a distance.

COVID-19 has become the “great disruptor” of this year, potentially of our age. The deadly disease has served the role of a wildcard, maximizing the need for non-trivial solutions and “think out of the box” ingenuity. The pandemic and the accompanying quarantine restrictions have damaged businesses and offset economic growth. The disease has, tragically, taken the lives of almost 1,300 Ukrainians to date. At the same time, the pandemic has had a huge impact on everyday approaches to everything – from school education, household chore division or the social life of our closest circles, to the way we deal with banks, pay bills or interact with the health system. It has made us think fast and seek solutions, oftentimes of a digital nature.

Positive sides

Globally, COVID-19 has not only torpedoed our daily routines and economies; it has presented the global human community with new challenges that reframe the way we, as humankind, are progressing on the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals. And yet, this disruption has also had an unexpectedly positive side effect on the speed of digital transformation in the country. It is this mix of cloud and silver lining that I would like to focus on, followed by some thoughts on what lessons we could learn and what our actions could be going forward.

Of the 17 SDGs, Goal 16: “Peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, access to justice for all, effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels” stands out as the one that could, potentially, benefit from the crash-course adaptation of humanity to the pandemic era. I recently had the opportunity to discuss with my colleagues the work we are doing in Ukraine to help strengthen the rule of law and deliver legal aid, both now, during the pandemic, and before. The experience-sharing took place at the UNDP’s Annual Meeting on Strengthening the Rule of Law and Human Rights for Sustaining Peace and Fostering Development.

Unfortunately, but perhaps appropriately, I did not physically travel to this event but instead Zoomed to it, as did other participants from around the world. This dialogue and experience exchange called for us to cast a glance back and then turn to an uncertain future – uncertain except for the role that technology play.  We can be sure the future will look much more digital than in the past.

Electronic governance

Domestically, even before the emergence of the pandemic, Ukraine was faring well in terms of its electronic governance. The country’s leadership has continuously prioritized digital transformation, and last year a dedicated Ministry was created based on its predecessor state agency. The gains of recent years were prudently retained and built on, and the ambitious “Your State in Your Smartphone” vision started taking shape. Having evolved since the summer of 2019, “Your State in Your Smartphone” (nowadays the “Diia” brand) aims to digitalize most government services by 2024, increasing the performance and efficiency of state institutions, and reducing opportunities for petty and administrative corruption. While ambitious, given the impetus provided by the pandemic, this goal may well be attainable.

The willingness of national leadership to engage in better and more structured development assistance coordination is yet another positive trend, especially as the number of international partners working on issues of digitalization and related fundamental issue of cybersecurity grows by the day. Such coordination should enable development partners and focal-point ministries, in our case the Ministry for Digital Transformation, to coordinate support from international partners and make sure that the solutions developed or supported by relevant initiatives, pilots and technical assistance projects are compatible, secure and adequately certified for personal and sensitive data protection.

Open information exchange, frank discussions and sharing of materials, honest and inclusive negotiations and equitable resource-pooling may, hopefully, become foundations for redoubled efforts by Ukrainian and international partners to provide Ukrainians with a friendlier, more secure and rights-based world of electronic services. Our UNDP team is part of this process and hopes to launch dedicated assistance in this area soon in close coordination with colleagues from the European Union, its member states and the United States.

Photo: shutterstock.com/ the Hornbills Studio

Lessons learned

Over the years of its work in Ukraine, UNDP has been investing in several streams of citizen-oriented digitalization products. These have included the development of smartphone applications for fast service provision, access to municipal budgetary data or tools for legal aid aimed at those suffering from the ongoing armed conflict in the east of the country. With the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, UNDP in Ukraine rapidly switched gears, working in partnership with the Ministry for Digital Transformation on the #HackCorona Challenge, which engaged IT experts, civic activists, start-ups, journalists in developing IT-projects to meet the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the meantime, UNDP is continuing to design mobile applications for administrative services provision in the east, to develop the business platform for small and medium enterprises, and to work on many other initiatives.

All this work brought about at least two lessons learned. The first one relates to the ability (or rather skills) to enjoy the benefits of the digital age. The advent of the COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare a problem that could immensely hamper development: impaired digital literacy. When traditional methods of obtaining services and guidance became unavailable due to quarantine restrictions, the need to use IT technologies came to the fore. However, according to a nationwide study on digital literacy conducted at the end of 2019, some 38 percent of Ukrainians have digital literacy skills lower than average, while 15 percent of the population may be dubbed digitally illiterate. Throughout 2019, 34 percent of the Ukrainian citizens aged 18-70 became victims of internet scams, and only 14 percent know how to protect their data online.

It has become apparent that there is a need to enhance citizen digital skills and abilities – potentially through a National Digital Literacy Programme. We at UNDP Ukraine and our subdivision, the Accelerator Lab, have already agreed with our partners at the Ministry for Digital Transformation that our networks of SDG regional coordinators, civil society hubs, youth workers, and the regional network of the Ombudsperson’s Office all around the country can be of help in this endeavour.

The second item that we, as an organization, have taken down into our learning log is the deceitful promise of an equalizing force that digitalization offers. In practice, digitalization of citizen services appears to remove all gaps and barriers only at the surface. Looking deeper, we have seen that digitalization without proper attention to filling the digital divides between citizen groups (defined by sex, age, skills, disabilities and economic status), while eliminating old inequalities, has the potential to cause new ones – especially in middle-income countries such as Ukraine.

Furthermore, failure to take notice of and address human rights aspects while re-engineering business processes for the digital age may deprive some citizens of the ability to enjoy such services altogether, while empowering others. As such, we at UNDP take a comprehensive, human-rights-based approach to chart the service modifications we undertake with state partners and consult vulnerable groups that may not fully benefit from or become disenfranchised due to their levels of digital skills, disabilities or material status. After all, not everyone has a mobile phone with a touchscreen or access to laptops and tablets with mobile or broadband internet.

Building back better

With these issues and considerations in mind, we will continue to work with the government of Ukraine to ensure that digital literacy inequalities are addressed as the country moves forward with digital transformation and that the re-designed services are indeed rooted in human rights considerations of truly never leaving one behind.

Disruptive events on a global scale, as we have seen in the case of COVID-19, send shock waves around the globe. As imperfect, as problematic, and as socially unfair as it is, it is the only world we have as of today, and it is ours to change -- for better or worse.  

To build back better and creative a better world for everyone everywhere, we must stay focused on the Sustainable Development Goals.  The SDGs are the DNA for what we do at UNDP Ukraine, they also are what motivates us to support a citizen-oriented, human-rights-based approach to digital transformation.

The clouds overhead may be dark and gloomy, but we are moving toward a brighter sunrise -- and seeking effective partnerships on this exciting road of making our society a better place.

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