COVID-19: AN OPPORTUNITY FOR DIGITAL TRANSFORMATION THROUGH REGIONAL COLLABORATION

Caribbean Telecommunications Union

21st July 2020

Introduction

The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated most pointedly the interdependency of the countries of the world in several respects. It has led to unprecedented conditions in peacetime. No one knows how long these conditions will last or what the longer-term consequences will be. The World Health Organisation defines a pandemic as the worldwide spread of a new disease. This rapid spread of the disease happens through the well-connected air and sea routes in the interconnected world. For example, the virus reached Canada within forty-eight hours after it appeared in China.

Consequently, to defeat the virus requires both regional and international cooperation. Global forces must join this battle and contribute to viable solutions to restore the social and economic wellbeing of the world’s citizens. Likewise, Caribbean States must seize the opportunity to work collaboratively to develop a body of best practice solutions to protect and safeguard the interest of Caribbean citizens and to advance the social and economic recovery post-COVID-19. It will also give a voice to the region in contributing to the Global collaborative debate and the formulation of viable solutions.

The Caribbean can commit to this collaboration on digital transformation by agreeing to adopt the UN Declaration of Digital Interdependence:

Humanity is still in the foothills of the digital age.

The peaks are yet uncharted, and their promise still untold. But the risks of losing our foothold are apparent:  Dangerous adventurism among states, exploitative behaviour by companies, regulation that stifles innovation and trade, and an unforgivable failure to realise vast potential for advancing human development. How we manage the opportunities and risks of rapid technological change will profoundly impact our future and the future of the planet. We believe that our aspirations

and vulnerabilities are deeply interconnected and interdependent; that no one individual institution, corporation or government alone can or should manage digital developments; and that we must work through our differences to shape our common digital future.

We declare our commitment to building on our shared values and collaborating in new ways to realise a vision of humanity’s future in which affordable and accessible digital technologies are used to enable economic growth and social opportunity, lessen inequality, enhance peace and security, promote environmental sustainability, preserve human agency, advance human rights and meet human needs.”

CARICOM Single ICT Space

In keeping with CARICOM’s 2014 decision to establish the CARICOM region as a Single ICT Space, in February 2017 the Heads of Government approved the Vision and Roadmap for the CARICOM Single ICT space to guide its implementation.  The overarching objective of the Single ICT Space is to provide the digital layer to underpin the Caribbean Single Market Economy.

The most significant outcomes resulting from a CARICOM Single ICT Space are ubiquity and consistency of ICT services across the Caribbean Community at affordable prices to citizens. Other outcomes include:

• Equitable, affordable access to broadband information and communication technologies, which are secure, ubiquitous and reliable; and which facilitate the rapid acquisition, processing and dissemination of information;

• The use of ICTs to gather information and knowledge analyse and disseminate it effectively for citizens’ social and economic progress;

• Enhancement of regional trade, innovation, competitiveness and citizen welfare; and

• Practical support for the realisation of the CARICOM digital economy.

Unfortunately, these outcomes have not been realised because the needed human and financial resources required for the implementation of the CARICOM Single ICT Space initiative have not been allocated. While some countries have progressed their national agendas for digitisation, regional cooperation and collaboration are absent. Accordingly, the region may be duplicating efforts and wasting scarce resources as each country develops its digital plan in silos. I quote Prime Minister, The Right Honourable Dr Keith Mitchell on the silo approach: … the Caribbean must abandon the traditional silo approach to the adoption of ICT and e-government. Instead, we must move urgently towards the provision of integrated public services online through, one-stop platforms and other delivery channels that allow access to the full range of public services. We must have a platform that is capable of seamless delivery of services in a customer-friendly manner.”

COVID-19: THE TECHNOLOGY Response

The COVID-19 pandemic forced some very fundamental changes in our social interactions and business dealings. In order to contain the spread of the virus, countries closed their borders to avoid imported cases, locked down non-essential businesses; limited the numbers of persons gathering in public spaces; introduced stay at home rules, limited the use of public transportation and amended laws to enforce the new regulations and prohibitions. The authorities closed schools thus disrupting the education of students. Social distancing, not previously used, became the order of the day.

Countries also introduced stimulus packages to ease the impact of the pandemic on vulnerable members of society and to sustain some level of economic activity.

These measures created a shift in thinking as citizens and businesses looked to other ways of working, advancing their business interests and socialising. Since more people were staying at home and children were out of school, there was an increased demand for broadband services for conducting business and entertainment. Schools turned to the delivery of classes over the internet. However, not all students benefitted from this initiative due to the absence of internet connectivity or no access to computers or smartphones to use the services.   

In this period, Netflix subscribers increased by 15.8million, more than two times its projected 7.0 million, as at 31st March 2020. Zoom experienced similar exponential growth in meeting participants of 300 million up from 10 million in December 2019. Here in the Caribbean, employers encouraged their employees to work from home to comply with the new public health regulations.

All CARICOM countries adopted partial digital solutions to administer their stimulus packages. However, very few of these solutions offered a complete end-to-end service. In many cases, the extent of the digital application was the ability to download a form to make an application for the support offered. These procedures were not in alignment with the social distancing guidelines, as applicants had to submit the completed form in person. Young entrepreneurs in some countries developed apps and took to social media to share information on the COVID-19 pandemic situation.

We must not allow these successes to deter us from a more holistic approach to Regional digitisation.

CARICOM countries would have been better placed to manage the COVID-19 situation had the time frames and schedules of the Vision and Roadmap of CARICOM Single ICT Space been maintained. The realisation of the Single ICT Space requires inter-governmental collaboration and cooperation.  Covid-19 experience makes it imperative that the CARICOM States redouble their efforts to forge ahead with higher levels of meaningful interaction and collaboration in the development of digital solutions, which are the new dynamics for economic and social development. The silo, country approach to digitisation will not advance the interest of CARICOM States. On this matter, Dr The Honourable Keith Mitchell, Prime Minister of Grenada and CARICOM Science and Technology Chair, stated:

“We must commit human and financial resources to achieve specific outcomes. We must explore our capacity to fund our regional development aspirations. Donor and grant funding will not satisfy the requirements to advance our economic and social development. We need to collaborate more effectively and coordinate our efforts. We must resolve to pool our resources to minimise and reverse silos, duplication of efforts and waste of resources.”

The Digital economy

The digital economy is the undisputed driver of the 4th Industrial Revolution that is providing both opportunities and challenges to global growth. Therefore, CARICOM States must become active participants in this revolution and position themselves to leverage digital opportunities to cope with problems and participate in the digital economy for inclusive economic growth and development. The G20 Digital Economy Development and Cooperation Initiative defines the digital economy “… as a broad range of economic activities that include using digitised information and knowledge as the critical factor of production, modern information networks as a vital activity space, and the effective use of information and communication technology (ICT) as an essential driver of productivity, growth and economic structural optimisation. Internet, cloud computing, big data, Internet of Things, fintech and other digital technologies used to collect, store, analyse, and share information digitally and transform social interactions.  Digitised network and intelligent ICTs enable new economic activities to be more flexible and agile.

The way forward: Actions to make a difference

In this digitally connected world, digitisation would enhance the competitiveness of the CARICOM States. Globalisation, spawned by inter-connectivity which has been a feature of the world over several decades is being hyperceded by digitalisation. If we miss capitalising on this opportunity in a timely fashion, we do so at our peril. Hereunder (Table 1) is the status of some CARICOM States included in the sample of 141 countries evaluated for competitiveness ranking and 191 countries selected for ease of doing business ranking.

CountryCompetitiveness (141 Rankings)Ease of doing business (191 Rankings
Trinidad & Tobago  79105
Barbados  77128
Jamaica  80  71
Dominica 111
Antigua & Barbuda 113
Bahamas 119
St Vincent & Grenadines 130
Guyana 134
Belize 135
St Kitts & Nevis 139
Grenada 146
Suriname 162
Haiti138179
Table 1 Source:  Competitiveness Ranking: World Economic                               
Forum (2019) and Ease of doing business:                       
World Bank (2020)

In the rankings for the ease of doing business, only Jamaica achieved a ranking under 100 out of 191 evaluated countries. There is much room for improvement in the rankings for all the CARICOM States selected for evaluation. Digitisation has a vital role to play in improving our competitiveness. We must work towards enhancing these results to advance our ability to attract investments in the emerging industries. We must commit to improving the opportunities for CARICOM citizens to participate in the world that is increasingly driven by digitisation.

To accelerate the development of a digital economy in CARICOM, our CARICOM Heads of State must have a mindset change to focus on a more robust approach to digitisation. This approach must have a strong overarching digital vision, an appropriate governance structure, a proliferation of digital initiatives generating public value in measurable ways and a healthy digital culture.  

In 2018, the Caribbean Telecommunications Union launched the 21st Century Government initiative which seeks to support Caribbean countries in making their Governments citizen-centric, seamless and resilient by making effective use of ICT to deliver services to its citizens and clients. This effort requires collaboration by member countries and the dedication of resources at the regional and national levels. The commitment to collaborate is lacking.

We have experienced the digital realm as many persons worked from home. There is a general realisation that technology solutions would have facilitated the administration of relief services more effectively. By expanding the suite of ICT enabled solutions to all government services additional efficiency and economic benefits would accrue to our citizens.

Accordingly, the enhanced application of digital transformation initiatives is urgent and necessary.

Digital transformation is not beyond us. Let us work together and Just DO IT!