6. Managing inclusive digital transformation, lessons from 100 countries

Yolanda Jinxin Ma
United Nations Development Programme

The authors would like to acknowledge the contributions of Carolin Frankenhauser, Digital Analyst, and Paula Lopez for visual design.

  • The COVID-19 pandemic has spurred unprecedented demand from developing countries for digital support: the United Nations Development Programme alone has received such requests from more than 100 countries.

  • The pandemic has exposed and intensified inequality within and among countries. With 2.9 billion people still offline, closing the digital divides is more urgent than ever.

  • Development actors need to increase investments in more holistic digital transformation with an inclusion focus and whole-of-society approach that is rooted in the country context.

  • Development actors, intentionally and collectively, need to measure the impact and benefits of digital transformation, especially for marginalised groups.

The digital revolution presents an opportunity to reinvigorate efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and rethink approaches towards development. Before the COVID-19 crisis, many developing countries and development actors saw digital technologies as useful enablers that could enhance programming. The pandemic shifted their perspective. Not only is it more important than ever to systematically incorporate digital approaches into development, but national digital transformations, while necessarily tailored to each individual country context, also must be consciously inclusive and people-centred.

For the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), inclusive digital transformation is about improving the availability, accessibility and adoption of digital technologies for all. Its country partners are eager for support. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, more than 100 countries have asked for assistance developing digital solutions, including some 30 that sought support to ensure a holistic digital transformation. Development co-operation providers, working collaboratively and investing strategically, can make meaningful contributions towards building open and inclusive digital ecosystems.

The COVID-19 crisis was a wake-up call for the need to pursue whole-of-society digitalisation approaches. Billions of people around the world suddenly needed digital devices to be able to learn, work, trade, and access essential information and services. The pandemic widened inequality, set back poverty eradication efforts and made abundantly clear that digital divides, if left unaddressed, can have long-lasting negative impacts on human development. Gender-based digital divides, for instance, could mean that millions of women excluded from digital ecosystems may lose out on work opportunities as stimulus programmes increasingly are delivered through digital channels (Madgavkar et al., 2020[1]).

Demand from UNDP partner countries centres on three main areas: 1) technology guidance; 2) digital solutions; and 3) basic digital infrastructure and capacity building (Figure 6.1). The explosion of demand for support also reflects the scale of the pandemic-related challenges they had to address, including:

  • providing children with Internet access for online schooling

  • connecting street vendors to e-commerce platforms so they could continue operating their businesses

  • educating government employees so they could provide services on line

  • building secure and interoperable data platforms for COVID-19 tracking and tracing

  • fighting hate speech and misinformation on social media.

These are interconnected challenges, and a siloed approach that addresses any one issue with a single set of digital solutions does not work well. For example, in one country, the UNDP received a request for an Information Systems Strategic Plan from one ministry and another request from a different ministry for support to build a data warehouse for the country to manage its COVID-19 response. These two separate requests, while stemming from different needs, have a natural linkage and are very much interconnected. Support can be more effective if it builds the foundations of digital ecosystems to help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals rather than stand-alone and sectoral digital systems or platforms. Early evidence suggests that countries with more developed digital foundations were able to respond more effectively to the COVID-19 crisis.

Support can be more effective if it builds the foundations of digital ecosystems to help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals rather than stand-alone and sectoral digital systems or platforms.   

Thanks to its well-established national digital ID system, for instance, Pakistan was able to provide emergency cash to 7 million people within two weeks of launching its assistance programme (Nishtar, 2020[2]). In Uganda, a partnership between the UNDP and Jumia, Africa’s leading e-commerce platform, helped more than 2 000 informal market vendors access new customers on line while sustaining supply chains during the pandemic (UNDP, 2021[3]) .

As they emerge from crisis response mode and shift towards a recovery phase, more governments are asking for technology guidance and policy advice. At the same time, global development actors are proactively seeking to align their efforts in the direction of an ecosystem approach, following in the footsteps of early pioneers such as the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the World Bank, Digital Pathways at Oxford and the Digital Impact Alliance. Based on insights gained from its country-level support on digital solutions, the UNDP, too, advocates for an intentional, proactive and inclusive approach towards digital transformation.

Inclusive digital transformation is ensuring that digital technologies are universally available, accessible and adopted and that they enable meaningful and safe use of the Internet and digital services for all. This entails a thoughtfully designed and implemented change process focused on maximising the benefits of digitalisation for people. Inclusive digital transformation:

  • addresses the needs of the most poor and vulnerable, including those who are not connected

  • mitigates the tendency of digital transformation to exacerbate existing inequalities

  • empowers underrepresented groups to take part in a meaningful way

  • protects people from the adverse effects of digital technologies.

While there is no textbook example of a perfectly executed inclusive digital transformation, early evidence shows the potential benefits of investing in digital inclusion. At a macro-regional level, one recent study argues that the economic benefits of reaching universal Internet access far outweigh the investment costs – in the case of East Asia and the Pacific, by a magnitude of over 30 times (Bamford, Hutchinson and Macon-Cooney, 2021[4]).

On a microeconomic level, inclusive digital transformation can expand market opportunities and create new ones for businesses. The potential market size of smart recruiting platforms for informal workers, for instance, is estimated to be between USD 500 million and USD 2 trillion by 2022, according to a study by UNICEF, Arm and Dalberg (2019[5]). Inclusive digital ecosystems also improve the environment for businesses. Research in Serbia for the UNDP found that decent connectivity plus an inclusive and welcoming digital environment (for example, easy visa requirements, level of LGBT-friendliness, etc.) could attract skilled immigrants (Nikolić, 2020[6]).

Some countries had started to think through their approach to digital technologies and adopted a national digital strategy even before the pandemic drove home the urgency of such an exercise. Others are looking for guidance on immediate, concrete and practical steps they can take now to implement inclusive digital transformation. While recognising that countries approach this process with their own individual development challenges, the UNDP has developed a framework to help them assess their current strengths and weaknesses and identify future priorities. The framework includes elements needed to build an inclusive digital ecosystem and a digital readiness assessment, both in beta version and still evolving to incorporate country and development community feedback. The framework revolves around people, the government, infrastructure, regulation and business for an inclusive, whole-of-society digital transformation (Figure 6.2).

Drawing on its engagement with 12 countries that are developing digital strategies, the UNDP has identified a variety of approaches that have proven to be effective in accelerating inclusive digital transformations.

Strong commitment and clearly articulated objectives and a vision from a country’s leadership are critical to a successful digital transformation. These help to refine the agenda and shared goals, enabling concerted action in terms of investment, human resources and the creation of an enabling environment. Countries often set up an institutional structure to complement and implement the national strategy, either in the form of a new ministry or agency or a special unit under the president or prime minister. These can ensure co-ordination and alignment across different ministries, between the public and private sectors, and at both national and local levels.

A dedicated institutional structure can ensure co-ordination and alignment across different ministries, between the public and private sectors, and at both national and local levels.  

An example is the Republic of Moldova, which eight years ago adopted its Digital Agenda for Moldova 2020 (Government of Moldova, 2013[7]). Initially focused on modernising the information and communication sector, the strategy is now being updated based on a revitalised vision of digital transformation as a key national priority. The central government, with support from the UNDP, is co-ordinating digital efforts across its various institutions by facilitating strategic conversations and strengthening alignment among United Nations agencies, regional players such as the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and development co-operation providers such as USAID and the European Union, among others.

In another example of this approach, the government of Mauritania is in the process of creating a national digital agency to lead the digital transformation across ministries and stakeholders in line with its strategy. After conducting a rapid digital readiness assessment based on the inclusive digital transformation framework, the UNDP helped evaluate the current distribution of responsibilities and institutional structures; introduced international best practices to benchmark; and identified the need for an agile structure with a clear mandate to implement an inclusive digital strategy. As advised by the UNDP, the newly established Ministry of Digital Transformation, Innovation and Public Sector Modernisation, the country’s first, has identified as one of its main strategic priorities ensuring an integrated, coherent, inclusive and whole-of-government approach to digital transformation.

Many government approaches tend to be fragmented and isolated across different ministries, leading to the lack of interoperability and duplication of effort that hampers digital transformation and delays its potential benefits. By default, such approaches also may exclude non-governmental stakeholders, especially marginalised groups, from digital policy development. A successful alternative is a whole-of-society approach that allows different actors to participate in a meaningful way (Cázarez-Grageda, 2018[8]) and is transparent, inclusive and representative. While such an approach may not be a natural choice for some governments, its value is increasingly being recognised and embraced.

The UNDP has promoted such holistic approaches. In Kosovo1 it hosted a roundtable with government and private sector representatives to discuss and align on joint priorities for an inclusive digital transformation (UNDP, 2021[9]). This generated key principles for stakeholders to consider, including the need for agility in implementing digital strategies and quick adaptation. Similarly, the UNDP conducted a survey in Curaçao to ensure the digital agenda reflects and integrates public opinion. The survey received 1 180 responses over the course of just two days, a significant number in a territory with a population of 155 000 (Smith, Cooper and Gemon, 2021[10]). This also demonstrated strong interest from both individual citizens and their different communities across the country on the digital future of the country.

Another example of this approach is in Dominica, where the UNDP supported a whole-of-society process to develop the national digital strategy including through roadshows, consultations and a public engagement survey that garnered nearly 500 responses. The digital readiness assessment also solicited feedback from a range of national stakeholders, including the private sector, United Nations representatives and development workers at an initial in-person visioning workshop in July 2020 (UNDP, 2021[11]). Robert Tonge, Dominica’s Co-ordinator of the Digital Economy, has pledged that the vision for Dominica’s digital future will reflect the views of all Dominicans as “public ownership of the new strategy is essential” (UNDP, 2021[12]).

Successful approaches to an inclusive digital transformation look beyond strategy to ensure that other components also emphasise inclusion, whether they concern businesses, infrastructure, or appropriate government policies and regulations designed to protect the most vulnerable from potential risks and harm brought by digital revolutions. Some countries are pursuing the goal of universal connectivity as a starting point for their digital agenda that will lead to additional economic and development benefits. These examples can generate evidence for countries that have yet to make investments in digital services and technologies.

Botswana, for instance, plans to connect 203 villages to high-speed broadband Internet in 2021 and 2022 and ultimately provide Wi-Fi hotspots in public places across the country (Boti, 2021[13]). The country’s digital strategy, called SmartBots, thus aligns with its Vision 2036, which aims to transform Botswana from an upper middle-income to a high-income country by 2036 (Government of Botswana, 2021[14]).

Another example is Bangladesh. With UNDP support through the Access to Information initiative, it has built up important digital infrastructure over the past decade. This served it in good stead when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Thanks to existing physical digital centre networks and capabilities, Bangladesh was able to rapidly train more than 4 000 doctors to provide telemedicine services through a national hotline that has served more than 350 000 patients during the pandemic.

Ukraine is also building inclusion into service and product design. The UNDP is supporting the Ministry of Digital Transformation to foster equitable access to digital technologies, including through a project to digitalise state services (UNDP, 2021[15]). The project aims to strengthen Ukraine’s capacity to design digitalised services to vulnerable populations using a human rights-based approach (Klyuchar and Haccius, 2020[16]).

Commitments to foster inclusive digital transformations do not always translate easily into action. The EDISON Alliance, led by the World Economic Forum (2021[17]), is one of several global initiatives to foster affordable and accessible digital opportunities. One aspect of its work is a Digital Inclusion Navigator, an online tool co-developed by the UNDP and the World Economic Forum to help governments learn from examples of inclusive digital approaches and access resources such as best practices, playbooks and ongoing initiatives.

To help translate ambitions into action in developing countries, the development community should continue to collaborate and collectively step-up efforts in three main areas:

  1. 1. Align strategies, approaches and support at the country level. There is huge potential for strategic country-level collaboration on digitalisation. More development actors have come to realise the importance of an ecosystem approach, but this is not yet fully reflected in country-level implementation, which has led to unnecessary competition for funding and underutilised local talent. Given the scarcity of resources, interoperability challenges and the significant risks of duplication, development actors should not only increase their investment, but also align on priorities, ideally based on developing county partners’ national digital strategies.

  2. 2. Remain relevant partners and engage different players. Development actors need to increase their own level of digital literacy and stay on top of new (technological) developments. Understanding and collecting evidence of what works and what does not in different local contexts can help identify the right partners to work with, including private sector companies and civil society organisations. Collaboration with the digital ecosystem, at both local and global levels, will ensure a more sustainable long-term engagement that respects local cultures and practices and leverages global expertise as appropriate.

  3. 3. Measure the impact and benefits of digital transformation, particularly for vulnerable groups, more effectively. Data and evidence about the benefits of digital transformation for countries and individuals, especially in marginalised groups, are still limited. But ongoing digital transformations will produce large volumes of data that development agencies should try to harness more effectively. An important step would be to agree common measurement standards for tracking evidence and generating insights – for instance, on how people newly connected to the Internet are using and leveraging digital platforms and how that connectivity transforms individuals, families, communities and countries. Deeper understanding will foster better decision making and prioritisation of future actions.


[4] Bamford, R., G. Hutchinson and B. Macon-Cooney (2021), The Progressive Case for Universal Internet Access: How to Close the Digital Divide by 2030, Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, London, https://institute.global/policy/progressive-case-universal-internet-access-how-close-digital-divide-2030.

[13] Boti, O. (2021), “Botswana: Connectivity Plans Advance”, AllAfrica, https://allafrica.com/stories/202105050243.html (accessed on 21 October 2021).

[8] Cázarez-Grageda, K. (2018), The Whole of Society Approach: Levels of Engagement and Meaningful Participation of Different Stakeholders in the Review Process of the 2030 Agenda, discussion paper, Partners for Review, Bonn, https://www.partners-for-review.de/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/Whole-of-Society-P4R-Discussion-Paper-Oct.-2018.pdf.

[14] Government of Botswana (2021), “Botswana Vision 2036: Achieving Prosperity for All”, web page, https://www.vision2036.org.bw/sites/default/files/resources/Vision2036.pdf (accessed on 21 October 2021).

[7] Government of Moldova (2013), Digital Moldova 2020, Government of Moldova, Chișinău, https://eufordigital.eu/library/digital-moldova-2020-strategy (accessed on 21 October 2021).

[16] Klyuchar, M. and L. Haccius (2020), “Human rights and digitalization – One byte at a time”, UNDP in Ukraine blog, https://www.ua.undp.org/content/ukraine/en/home/blog/2020/human-rights-and-digitalization-one-byte-at-a-time.html (accessed on 21 October 2021).

[1] Madgavkar, A. et al. (2020), “COVID-19 and gender equality: Countering the regressive effects”, McKinsey Global Institute, https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/future-of-work/covid-19-and-gender-equality-countering-the-regressive-effects (accessed on 8 October 2021).

[6] Nikolić, K. (2020), “What digital nomads have to teach us about emigration”, UNDP blog, https://www.rs.undp.org/content/serbia/en/home/blog/2020/what-digital-nomads-have-to-teach-us-about-emigration.html (accessed on 7 October 2021).

[2] Nishtar, S. (2020), “COVID-10: Using cash payments to protect the poor in Pakistan”, World Economic Forum Agenda blog, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/05/using-cash-payments-protect-poor-pakistan (accessed on 8 October 2021).

[10] Smith, G., A. Cooper and C. Gemon (2021), “Trinidad and Tobago – Weekly reflection”, UNDP Trinidad and Tobago, Accelerator Lab, https://sway.office.com/bLWqm5dMqw6IapSy?ref=Link.

[11] UNDP (2021), “Building on successful UNDP partnership, Dominica doubles down on digital transformation”, web page, https://digital.undp.org/content/digital/en/home/stories/building-on-successful-undp-partnership--dominica-doubles-down-o/ (accessed on 21 October 2021).

[15] UNDP (2021), “Digital, inclusive, accessible: Support to Digitalisation of Public Services in Ukraine (DIA Support) Project”, web page, https://www.ua.undp.org/content/ukraine/en/home/projects/digital--inclusive--accessible--support-to-digitalisation-of-sta.html.

[9] UNDP (2021), “Discussing the priorities, challenges and partnership opportunities for digital transformation in Kosovo”, web page, https://www.ks.undp.org/content/kosovo/en/home/stories/discussing-the-priorities--challenges-and-partnership-opportunit (accessed on 21 October 2021).

[12] UNDP (2021), “Dominicans shape their digital future with support from UNDP”, press release, UNDP Barbados & the Eastern Caribbean, https://www.bb.undp.org/content/barbados/en/home/presscenter/pressreleases/20192/dominicans-shape-their-digital-future-with-support-from-undp (accessed on 21 October 2021).

[3] UNDP (2021), “UNDP teams up with e-commerce giant Jumia to bring Uganda’s markets online”, web page, https://digital.undp.org/content/digital/en/home/stories/undp-teams-up-with-e-commerce-giant-jumia-to-bring-ugandas-marke (accessed on 21 October 2021).

[5] UNICEF, Arm and Dalberg (2019), Tech Bets for an Urban World: What the Tech Sector Can Do to Improve Children’s Lives in a Rapidly Urbanizing World, United Nations Children’s Fund, Arm and Dahlberg, https://www.unicef.org/innovation/media/166/file/Urban%20Tech%20Bets.pdf.

[17] World Economic Forum (2021), “The EDISON Alliance for Digital Inclusion”, web page, https://www.weforum.org/the-edison-alliance/home.


← 1. This designation is without prejudice to positions on status, and is in line with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244/99 and the Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice on Kosovo’s declaration of independence.

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