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EBRD’s digitalisation programmes key to ‘building back better’ economies


The EBRD is speeding up its programmes to help countries embrace digitalisation that has the potential to help overcome the impacts of the pandemic on their economies

Image © EBRD The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development is stepping up its efforts to help its clients accelerate their digitalisation agendas to cope with the challenges of the pandemic.

As countries look to get back into gear after pandemic-enforced lockdowns, digitalisation is seen as a key part of the agenda for many of them. However, quick solutions constructed during the pandemic may bring risks and vulnerabilities.

Hannes Astok, chairman of the management board for Estonia’s e-Governance academy, said that the pandemic had sparked a great leap forward in digitalisation, with many countries “making a decade’s progress in one year”.

Serbia is investing heavily in digitalisation and technology, partnering with the EBRD to extend the nation’s broadband coverage from 70% to 100%. Serbia’s prime minister Ana Brnabic pointed out that countries and areas within countries with poor internet access “suffered much more from Covid”.

EBRD has been working with both the public and private sectors in its countries of operation to provide technical expertise and guidance for how to manage the crisis with technology.

In the private sector, Barbara Rambousek, EBRD’s director for gender and economic inclusion, said that EBRD had been helping businesses come up with new ways to survive the pandemic, including “switching shop-based businesses to online”. She highlighted the work the EBRD had done in Uzbekistan to support the digitalisation of SMEs’ operations.


Safeguarding public interest

Michael Strauss, EBRD’s general counsel, said on a panel that the EBRD had observed that the demand for technical assistance from governments on digitalisation had “increased dramatically”, including for the development of digital medical procurement systems to manage demand for supplies in the pandemic.

Speaking at the meetings, EBRD chief economist Beata Javorick said developments in digitalisation were a positive legacy of the pandemic but warned that some sections of society risked being left behind. “Of course, the digital divide remains,” she said. “People who are younger, who have higher incomes or more education are much more likely to make purchases online, and this educational [and] age divide is particularly visible.”

But with the rapid progress, new risks and vulnerabilities emerge. Many of the solutions designed during the pandemic were done so quickly and under emergency conditions. Astok pointed out that more work will be needed to convert these quick fixes into sustainable and lasting solutions.

Astok also noted that some countries have used the crisis to expand the powers of their digital police state. “We need to be careful that while we move forward with building this digital governance globally, we make sure it’s safe, secure and follows the principles of human rights,” he added. 

The EBRD, as it helps countries build up their digital governance infrastructure, has a responsibility to ensure “that the roll-out and uptake of digital technologies goes hand in hand with institution building, rights protection and safeguarding of the public interest,” according to Marietje Schaake, international policy director at Stanford University’s cyber policy centre.

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