Technological change is both an opportunity and risk for Pacific nations. Australia must take this into consideration when engaging in development programs.
Technological change is one of the most critical issues facing the Pacific region. But the Australian development community is not perceived as having been an early adopter of digital technology, despite its huge potential to impact positively on outcomes across all sectors of Australia’s development cooperation, including education, health, climate action and economic development.
Some non-government organisations (NGOs) are embracing the opportunities that technology provides and partnering with technology companies to use social media platforms and digital tools for development programs, including to educate people on online safety and to distribute emergency relief funds.
These offer practical examples of how digital tools and cyber security considerations can be part of Australia’s development program.
Not a Niche Issue
Digital technology is a stand-alone issue, but also cuts across all sectors of society and government and is vital for how Pacific island countries function now and into the future. It is not a niche concern, but a critical issue facing Pacific nations.
Digital technology provides an immense opportunity for the Pacific, a region that is still struggling with global connectivity. The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the importance of digital connectivity, providing economic opportunities for the Pacific to promote business and continue to connect with global customers while borders were closed, and tourism shut down. Digital technology also supports cultural and creative industries and enables Pacific nations to capture and preserve identity, traditional knowledge, way of life and culture.
At the same time, digital technology poses a major risk to Pacific states. With so many critical functions of governments and societies dependent on technology, identifying and protecting critical assets is a core security issue – and one on which governments, industry and civil society need to work together.
This means NGOs need to partner with Pacific nations both on digital transformation – the ability to reap the benefits of technological change – and on digital resilience – the ability to withstand incidents, attacks, and misinformation.
Making use of the opportunity of digital technology, an innovative Save the Children digital cash program helped vulnerable families in Fiji to manage the devastating impacts of COVID-19. The project ‒ the largest humanitarian cash transfer in Fiji’s history ‒ used mobile payment platforms to send almost AU $20 million in funds to 39,000 households identified as having the greatest need.
Using assessment criteria developed with the Fijian government and local NGOs, like the Fiji Council of Social Services, Save the Children prioritised vulnerable groups such as the elderly, women, children, and people living with a disability. A review shows that families assisted in the first phase of the project spent money on food (95 percent), water (27 percent), electricity (30 percent), clothing (19 percent), and medical expenses (16 percent). Some also bought cleaning products to keep their homes safe from COVID-19 during the height of the pandemic.
Save the Children uses cash and voucher assistance to support households impacted by disasters all over the world, however, the use of digital cash is a recent development.
Such collaborations are good examples of how Australia’s interest in supporting Pacific infrastructure projects can be leveraged to deliver social development dividends. Poor or non-existent access to online learning, markets and services are reflective of entrenched social disadvantage in the Pacific, especially affecting the lives of children. Hence developing technology and infrastructure can help deliver improved human security outcomes, not only geopolitical ones.
An example of the development community partnering with technology companies to prevent harm is the I Am Digital campaign, where Save the Children partnered with Meta (Facebook) to deliver a digital literacy and safety initiative. The campaign developed learning materials to help Pacific people stay safe on the internet. The tip sheets, jingles, and videos are shared online, in person and via the radio. They help empower children and their parents to have safer, more positive experiences online and safeguard themselves against abuse, bullying and exploitation. The campaign was first launched in February 2021, and has since been implemented in Fiji, Kiribati, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, and Vanuatu.
These are just a few examples of how digital technology can play an integral role in regional development.
The cost of technology is a significant barrier for the Pacific; this goes beyond initial investment and includes maintenance costs and the need for skilled people to utilise the technology. There are many examples of programs funding high-tech digital equipment, such as cameras or computers, that require high levels of maintenance, which means they are unusable when there is no additional or local support available, so the utility of the intervention is lost. Ongoing costs must be built in from the beginning of development cooperation programs.
There is also the need to assist in increasing digital capacity and digitally equipped people in the region, supporting sustainable digital and technology solutions that are managed, resourced, and deployed locally. Australian development cooperation should focus on strengthening skills and knowledge within the region, while supporting Pacific countries and governments to retain professionals by providing long-term commitments to mentoring, training, and upskilling to keep pace with the rapidly evolving digital technology. Programs should be designed and implemented to embed sustainable capability into the future.
Development cooperation should support infrastructure that addresses the different levels of development across the region. The provision of digital connectivity goes beyond just providing technology and requires affordability of access including practical assistance at the local level, for example, simple solar technology to enable charging of phones.
The Australian Government is an important partner in this context, given its investment in the undersea cable to PNG and other Pacific island countries that provides a secure and stable connection via which digital technologies are enabled to run. Once donors like Australia have invested in such forms of infrastructure, they should also follow up by investing in the associated technologies and training. Increasing access to digital technologies, both by governments and Pacific people, requires attention to how technologies are used. Digital tools and resources alongside cyber security considerations should be part of Australia’s development program.
Fiu Williame-Igara is PNG Country Director at Save the Children. Melissa Conley Tyler FAIIA is Program Lead at the Asia-Pacific Development, Diplomacy & Defence Dialogue (AP4D). This piece draws on a recent report “Australia and the Pacific: Shaping a Shared Future”. AP4D thanks all those involved in consultations to produce this report.
This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.