Strong Social Safety Nets, Inclusive Digital Connectivity Essential in Wake of Pandemic, Speakers Say, as Development Cooperation Forum Concludes Session

March 15, 2023

Effective social safety nets and inclusive digital connectivity are both required and lacking in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, speakers stressed as the Economic and Social Council’s Development Cooperation Forum concluded its annual session today, as panel discussions and interactive dialogues provided delegates with an opportunity to consider how best to foster these necessities within the broader framework of development cooperation.

Closing the Forum, Navid Hanif, Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development in the Department of Economic and Social Affairs, stressed that all development actors can — and must — do more to meet the scale of today’s challenges.  The recommendations proposed throughout the Forum are invaluable, and will guide the thinking and outcomes at the Sustainable Development Goals Summit and the High-Level Dialogue on Financing for Development in September.  The Forum’s insights also serve as practical guideposts for how the lives and livelihoods of the most vulnerable can be better protected through strengthened development cooperation in areas such as climate adaptation, social protection and digital transformation.

“The DCF [Development Cooperation Forum] is your United Nations platform for identifying new challenges and opportunities in development cooperation,” he said, encouraging participants to build on the Forum’s clear mandate and to forge more effective partnerships with others.  Ongoing Forum dialogue and peer learning are key opportunities in that regard, he said, calling on participants to contribute their data, feedback and recommendations to Department of Economic and Social Affairs-led research and analysis on development cooperation.  Citing other recommendations, he underscored the Department’s commitment to working with participants to unlock the enormous potential of risk-informed development cooperation and encouraged them to remain connected in the work ahead.

In her closing remarks, Lachezara Stoeva (Bulgaria), President of the Economic and Social Council, observed the Forum’s resounding call for stronger global solidarity in support of inclusive prosperity and peace.  Drawing attention to the proposed concept of “circular development cooperation”, she said it acknowledges the circular flow of expertise and assistance between developing and developed countries, in addition to traditional forms of North-South, South-South and triangular cooperation.  She also highlighted the persistent call to include more holistic criteria in assessing the development-cooperation needs.  Further, she stressed that climate adaptation must be more effectively embedded into development cooperation, adding that new financing commitments — such as those related to loss and damage — must be operationalized quickly and directed swiftly to where they are needed most.

Underscoring the importance of respecting countries’ ownership and leadership of their development trajectories, she said the international community must listen to local communities on the front line of climate change.  With over 4 billion people living without a social safety net, strong social-protection systems must become a global priority.  Also stressing the need to expand meaningful digital connectivity, she said the lack of Internet access persists for nearly 3 billion people — mostly from developing countries — effectively shutting them out of many development opportunities.  It is therefore crucial to scale up technology transfer, financing and capacity-building, she said, adding that she will include the Forum’s recommendations in her official summary, which will feed into the Financing for Development Forum in April and the high-level political forum on sustainable development in July.

As on 14 March, the Forum held two panel discussions throughout the day, the first of which explored the theme “Building momentum for effective social protection measures”.  Panellists underlined the importance of adequate social protection that protects the most vulnerable throughout their lives — especially in the area of health in the aftermath of COVID-19 — stressing the need to, among other things, value care work appropriately, empower vulnerable women, measure development needs in metrics other than income and put humans at the heart of the process.  Solid data-collection and the sharing of best practices will help develop effective social-protection systems, speakers stressed, as many delegates shared national experiences in this area in the wake of the pandemic.

The day’s other panel, on “Strengthening capacities to overcome the digital divide”, saw speakers highlight another effect of COVID-19 — the unprecedented rise of the digital economy and the increased inequity created as a result of the persistent digital divide.  Meaningful participation in many aspects of contemporary life requires reliable, sustainable access to the Internet and digital technology, they said, underlining the need to invest in energy and broadband infrastructure and connect the half of the world’s population that remains offline.  Delegates also spotlighted the dichotomy between the opportunities and the challenges presented by recent, rapid digital transformation, offering national experiences to inform international cooperation in this area.

At the outset of the meeting, the Forum heard a recap of the previous day’s discussions by Jonathan Glennie, Co-Founder of Global Nation, and Pooja Rangaprasad, Director for Policy and Advocacy at the Society for International Development.  Representatives of Colombia, South Africa, Ecuador and Chile also spoke during this segment.

Session 3

Setting the scene for the Development Cooperation Forum’s third panel were Marta Eugenia Esquivel Rodriguez, Executive President of the Costa Rican Social Security Fund; and Beate Andrees, Special Representative to the United Nations and Director of the International Labour Organization (ILO) Office for the United Nations.

Ms. RODRIGUEZ said that, in Costa Rica, a wide range of social programmes provide a basic level of social protection that guarantees fundamental rights for all people.  Further, such programmes work to reduce poverty and other types of vulnerability over people’s entire lifecycles to empower inclusive, sustainable development.  Development cooperation has a vital role to play in strengthening social security protection in developing countries, she said, as it may be lacking or non-existent in such places, leaving people vulnerable to poverty, disease and social exclusion.  Adding that a lack of financial resources is a primary obstacle, she called on cooperating countries to increase official development assistance (ODA) for investment in social security programmes and technical assistance to build local capacities in this area.  She also detailed national efforts to counter corruption in the realm of social security, underscoring that these resources cannot be abused.

Ms. ANDREES noted that 4 billion women, men and children around the world have no social protection at all.  These include men and women without unemployment insurance often working in the informal economy, families without health insurance and elderly people without pensions, she said, adding that ensuring their resilience against shocks is crucial to making the international community more equal and just.  Recalling the 2021 International Labour Conference that brought together Governments, workers and organizations from 187 countries, she noted that there is a major investment gap in social protection, notably in Africa, Arab States, Asia and the Pacific.  This has widened by approximately 30 per cent since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.  Stressing that investments should be anchored in sound policy and legal frameworks, she said social protection should guarantee access to health care, ensure income security and protect jobs.  Her organization provides technical advisory support to countries around the world to build and strengthen social-protection systems through its flagship programmes, she added.

The Forum’s third panel discussion was on “Building momentum for effective social protection measures”.  Moderated by Michael Bröning, Executive Director at the New York Office of Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, the panel featured:  Alexei Buzu, Minister for Labour and Social Protection of the Republic of Moldova; Fatou Gueye Diane, Minister for Women, Family and Child Protection of Senegal; Mariano Berro González, Executive Director, Uruguayan Agency for International Cooperation; and Arunee Hiam, Deputy Director-General, Thailand International Cooperation Agency.

Mr. BUZU said that he comes from a country of 2.5 million people that is currently managing a flow of approximately 500,000 Ukrainian refugees, considerable child poverty, a rapidly aging population and high inflation.  All of this puts pressure on the social-protection system, and he detailed national efforts to address this, including spending five per cent of the national budget for 2023 to protect the lowest-income households from high energy prices.  He went on to stress that social protection, at its core, is about care work, and that experience shows that effective social-protection systems are built around care work that is valued and adequately paid.  A key challenge is to change the narrative that care is cheap, he said, as, if care is not valued properly, “we will fail”.  Noting that social workers in the Republic of Moldova must deal with complicated cases, possess legal skills to operate in courts and the public sector and be digitally proficient, he said that, nevertheless, social work is paid as if it is not a sophisticated job.  Against that backdrop, he underscored the need to properly value and invest in care when reforming social-protection systems.

Ms. DIANE outlined her Government’s efforts towards effective and tailored social protection mechanisms.  The second pillar of her country’s 10-year development strategy, called the “Emerging Senegal Plan”, is focused on human capital, social protection and sustainable development, she said.  One of its strategic aims is to improve the living conditions of Senegalese people through a national social-protection strategy, underpinned by a lifecycle approach.  Its three priorities are to improve social coverage, include persons with disabilities and protect children, she said, adding that this will be broadened bit by bit to all workers including those in the informal sector.  Part of this is a programme aiming at the empowerment of 1 million vulnerable women, she noted, highlighting an initiative for female domestic workers who can receive a whole package of services, including universal health care, a family security stipend and easier access to training and financing.  Noting that Africa’s additional financing needs for post-COVID recovery amount to an additional $252 billion, she called for the establishment of a global social protection fund.

Mr. GONZÁLEZ reported that a sound social-protection system allowed Uruguay to react quickly to the pandemic.  Detailing other national successes, he said that educational reforms have created opportunities, informal jobs have decreased to the lowest level seen in recent decades and work is under way to reform the pension and tax systems.  He went on to note that Uruguay is a high-income country, which limits its access to international cooperation.  While it does not want to compete for resources that are earmarked for countries in less-advantageous situations, it does need technical assistance and human-resources training.  He also underlined the importance of a multidimensional approach to development, pointing out that countries in the region share similar problems that are independent of income levels — including those related to poverty, education, gender equity, migration, drug trafficking, money-laundering and debt repayment.  Cooperation can help find solutions to the problems that Uruguay and the greater region face — including those of growth, investment and market size — and he said that his country is particularly active in South-South and triangular cooperation, which should be thought of as complementary to traditional cooperation.

Ms. HIAM, underscoring that her country has always put humans at the heart of development, noted that the current global upheavals have exacerbated the gaps in social protection.  Thailand is working to narrow the gaps, focusing on the poor and vulnerable groups, in order to put the Sustainable Development Goals back on track.  The priority is to ensure human security in the areas of food, jobs, health, environment and energy.  Her Government has embraced digital technology and innovation, in combination with the homegrown approach of “the sufficiency economy philosophy” which emphasizes local wisdom and people-centred development.  A concrete example of how Thailand has put humans at the heart of development is the accomplishment of universal health coverage, she said.  The Government’s success in this is an illustration of the importance that the country has placed on social protection, she said, adding that “at home everyone can access basic health-care services they need without having to worry about crippling financial burdens”.  At the global level, Thailand shares its good practices with other developing countries, as well, she said, noting a collaboration with the Government of Kenya and expanding South-South collaboration.

The panel then turned to its lead discussants:  Paula Narváez Ojeda, Permanent Representative of Chile to the United Nations and Vice-President of the Economic and Social Council; Agustín Santos Maraver, Permanent Representative of Spain to the United Nations; and Sarah Lynne S. Daway-Ducanes, Assistant Secretary, National Economic Development Authority of the Philippines.

Ms. OJEDA, observing that, while all are in the same storm, “we are in different boats”, pointed out that the impact of cascading crises is not gender-neutral.  Women and girls are the most affected by environmental and economic crises, and social-protection systems are needed to help address risks and vulnerabilities.  She noted that Chile has seen the need for a new social covenant, detailing a recent constitutional process to enshrine a new social contract based on the conviction that balance is needed in a very unequal country.  She also stressed that the countries of the world cannot continue supporting an imbalanced system where the security of humanity is only seen from a military point of view.  Until the deep-seated causes of insecurity are addressed, the world will not make progress, she said, urging those present to take responsibility for social inequality, poverty and hunger and to invest in building prosperous, safe societies.

Mr. MARAVER said that the alarming inequalities in the world are not just economic, but also in safety and social protection.  The social and political changes of the current era call for a rethinking of the social contract, he said, calling for a framework of programmes for the poor.  Recalling how recovery from COVID-19 was left to the free market, he added that decent work, housing, education and public health should be crucial elements of this new social contract.  Commending the Secretary-General’s Our Common Agenda, he added that social protection and financing are two sides of the same coin.  For the first time since Bretton-Woods, the international community is rethinking its financial architecture and considering how to create more fiscal space for developing countries.  Highlighting a number of initiatives towards this, he said it is vital to strengthen assistance to development.  Spain has adopted a new law on cooperation and development that earmarks 7 per cent of its ODA for development, he said, recalling the proposal in the General Assembly to drive forward a social economy based on solidarity.

Ms. DAWAY-DUCANES said that unprecedented shocks emanating from the pandemic, conflicts and climate change have become an impetus for strengthening social-protection systems to shield people — especially the most vulnerable — from shocks.  To this end, the Philippines is working to expand access to social protection.  The Government and its development partners are conducting studies to guide the design of policies and programmes, using models to measure the social-protection needs of specific groups and conducting capacity-building workshops for key stakeholders.  She reported that Government efforts aimed at poverty reduction have benefitted more than 5 million households in her country, also helping to pave the way for self-sufficiency.  Further, the Philippines — along with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) — has designed a road map aimed to reduce vulnerabilities and increase the capacity of at-risk populations to prepare for, absorb and adapt to disasters.  Calling for investments to improve data-collection, disaggregation and monitoring, she also encouraged development partners to engage in more-frequent consultations to ensure coherence between development strategies and alignment with national priorities.

When the floor opened for the interactive dialogue, several delegates underscored the importance of development assistance in a post-COVID world.  Many shared their national experiences with universal health care and poverty elimination, while others drew attention to the connection between domestic and international social protection measures.

The representative of Brazil said that the disruptions posed by the pandemic demonstrate the important role of the Government in offering a minimum level of social protection.  Highlighting his country’s robust State policy aimed at eliminating poverty and tackling discrimination, he said that Brazil has a national registry for social protection.  Also noting the digitization of the social assistance programme, as well as cash-transfer and benefit policies, he drew attention to “Bolsa Familia” federal assistance programme, which supports a variety of marginalized sections of society, from lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex persons to individuals who live on the street.

The representative of Iraq said his Government has taken up the elimination of poverty as one of its priorities.  Highlighting a campaign to reach vulnerable people in remote areas, he said the Ministry of Planning is launching a survey to collect data on poverty and services provided.  He also expressed gratitude to the United Nations for its efforts in his country.

Responding, Mr. BUZU underlined the need for States to learn from each other, as well as the importance of employing a gender-sensitive approach to deal with crises.

Ms. DIANE, observing that almost all States speaking today have social-protection systems in place — but at different levels of development — also encouraged those present to draw on others’ experiences to improve their own systems.

Mr. GONZÁLEZ urged the strengthening of administrative-registry systems, which provide statistics, as access to such information is important for promoting transparency and ensuring that efforts are directed where they are needed most.

Ms. HIAM said that no single country can tackle global problems like climate change, poverty and pandemics alone, stressing that partnership is the means with which to overcome these challenges.

Also speaking during the interactive dialogue were representatives of the Russian Federation, Colombia and Panama.  The Forum also heard from a civil society speaker from the Congregation of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd.

Session 4

Setting the scene for the final panel discussion, CHEN CHUNJIANG, Assistant Minister of Commerce of China, highlighted the rapid rise of the digital technology economy.  There are 3.5 billion Internet users around the world, and the digital economy accounts for 15 per cent of global gross domestic product (GDP), he said.  But, 3 billion people are yet to be connected to the Internet, most of them from poor countries, he pointed out, adding that this divide must be overcome without delay.  In China, digital trade has been flourishing, he said, adding that his country is committed to mutual cooperation in the digital arena.  China has signed a memorandum of understanding with 17 countries on the digital silk road, he said, also noting the country’s participation in various bilateral cooperation mechanisms on e-commerce.  Calling on the United Nations to lead cooperation towards creating an inclusive and non-discriminatory environment for digital growth, he said China is committed to innovation-driven growth.

The Forum’s fourth panel centred on the theme “Strengthening capacities to overcome the digital divide”.  Moderated by Ursula Wynhoven, representative of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) to the United Nations, the panel featured:  Martha Delgado Peralta, Undersecretary for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Mexico; Juliette Prodhan, Deputy Director at the Development Policy Office of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office of the United Kingdom; and Sonia Jorge, Founder and Executive Director for Strategy and Partnerships, Global Digital Inclusion Partnership.

Ms. PERALTA said that the pandemic highlighted how essential digital technology has become, stating that it can help achieve fundamental rights, such as health, education and access to information.  To harness this transformative potential, the international community must develop public policies that maximize the benefits of emerging technology while minimizing the negative effects of, for example, the digital divide.  On that point, she noted the “stark reality” that more than half the world’s population lacks access to the Internet, the majority of whom reside in low- and middle-income countries.  This inequity creates disparity in access to information, services and opportunities, and she also emphasized that countries at all stages of development face divides within their own populations.  She therefore underlined the importance of cooperation to achieve universal, meaningful and accessible connectivity that puts people’s well‑being at the centre of all relevant policies.  She added that Mexico has made significant investments in digital infrastructure, including initiatives to provide Internet connectivity in rural areas and to promote digital literacy among marginalized communities.

Ms. PRODHAN pointed out that meaningful participation in many aspects of life requires sustainable access to digital technology and Internet connectivity.  These not only unlock development benefits and opportunities — by opening new communications channels, increasing productivity and fostering innovation, to name a few — but also have the potential to transform the prospects of households, communities and businesses.  To bridge the digital divide, Internet coverage must be extended to underserved communities through sustainable last-mile technology and business models; the affordability of services and devices, limited awareness of Internet benefits and lack of digital skills must be addressed; and the right policies, regulations, institutional capacities and private sector investments must be in place.  Digital inclusion must also be safe, responsible and secure for all users by strengthening both regulations and awareness of online harms, she added.  She then highlighted several examples of her country’s efforts on inclusive, responsible and sustainable digital transformations in other countries.

Ms. JORGE said that her organization’s research in partnership with ITU shows that only about $430 billion is needed to bring the world towards equal, universal, meaningful connectivity by 2030 — about the same amount as what the world spends in one year on soda.  That level of investment will bring those who are not connected to a level of connectivity that will provide opportunity for civic engagement, participation, agency and a full ability to benefit from digital platforms and services.  As well, it will allow for the development of digital skills so that they can be digital citizens and use technology in a safe, private way that protects their data and allows them to fully engage in digital societies.  More than half of the world currently does not have that opportunity, she stressed, underscoring the responsibility of the privileged to not contribute to further exclusion and increased inequalities.  She called for greater commitment and the redoubling of efforts to close the gender digital divide.

The panel then turned to its lead discussant, RUCHIRA KAMBOJ, Permanent Representative of India to the United Nations, who said her Government is ensuring that technology is a tool for inclusion rather than exclusion.  Development partnerships must focus on scaling up digital infrastructure, she said, noting their potential to address the limited access of developing countries to global supply chains.  India’s paperless and cashless service-delivery model has transformed social services, she said, adding that its biometrics-based unique identification number called Aadhar enables people at the last mile to operate bank accounts using handheld devices.  Forty per cent of the word’s digital transactions are conducted through India’s unified payments interface, she noted, adding that the Government also initiated an open-source multilingual application to manage vaccination status and inventory.  Also pointing to high-quality cybertraining programmes and online education, much of which have been made available to least developed States, she said countries across the world must be able to use data for development.

When the floor opened for interactive dialogue, many speakers spotlighted the unprecedented digitalization that occurred around the world in response to the pandemic, along with the concomitant rise in inequality between those with adequate digital access and those without it.  While delegates detailed national measures to bridge this digital gap, they also underlined the importance of collective efforts to improve digital connectivity.

The representative of the Philippines, recalling that the massive digitalization occasioned by the pandemic presented opportunities and challenges in equal measure, said that, while technological advances were made, socioeconomic inequalities were deepened.  To narrow the digital divide, the necessary infrastructure must be erected to enable greater access to digital technology and build people’s digital capacities.  She detailed national efforts towards this end, including an initiative to provide free access to the Internet in more than 8,900 locations nationwide to facilitate remote work and learning.

The representative of Algeria, aligning himself the “Group of 77” developing countries and China, said that it is “undeniable” that emerging technology — such as artificial intelligence and fifth-generation cellular networks — have contributed to improving food security, promoting energy access, enabling economic diversification and increasing access to education.  He also encouraged the international community to work to identify gaps remaining in global digital cooperation, particularly in reducing the exploitation of the Internet and social media for malicious purposes.

The representative of Sweden said that his country is proud to co‑facilitate — together with Rwanda — the Global Digital Compact, which provides an opportunity to shape a shared vision of digital cooperation.  For this process to have a successful outcome, all stakeholders must be included and involved in a meaningful way, he stressed, noting that the co-facilitators, to this end, have begun arranging consultations bringing together Member States, civil society, the private sector, youth and academia.

The representative of Guinea, noting that COVID-19 laid bare the considerable gap between those who have access to digital technology and those who do not, said that this divide is particularly evident in Africa, where three quarters of the continent’s 1.3 billion people do not have access to the Internet.  Adding that some 600 million people do not even have access to electricity, he underlined the link between digitalization and the availability of reliable, accessible electricity and stressed the need to invest in infrastructure.

Responding, Ms. PRODHAN said her policy recommendation would be to look at sustainable solutions for the last mile of inclusive connectivity.  For digital networks to operate down to the local level, States must fix coverage, quality and affordability, she added before also noting the need for solutions on the environmental dimension, role of Member States, impacts on women and potential of the digital to accelerate development.

Ms. JORGE, emphasizing that the world will miss targets by at least two decades if it continues at its current pace, encouraged all to ensure respect for rights, including on safety, privacy and protection; literacy and skills education; access to universal, meaningful connectivity; relevant content in local languages; and responsive targets at the national, regional and global level.

Also speaking during the interactive dialogue were the representatives of Indonesia, Brazil, Angola, Guatemala and Panama.

Civil society speakers from the Society for International Development, Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary and ActionAid also offered comments during the dialogue.