Estonia's digital path to global goals

23 February 2022
Inclusivity and human-centricity are an important part of conversations about digitalisation, says Estonia's Foreign Minister Eva-Maria Liimets

Digitalisation has opened up new possibilities and accelerated meeting sustainable development goals (SDGs).

One could say that digitalisation is the key driver of prosperous, sustainable and inclusive societies. Based on a human-centric approach, it can ensure that no one is left behind and, at the same time, lower the ecological footprint of societies. Digital public services are an excellent example of this.

Our reform experience since regaining our independence 30 years ago demonstrates that digitalisation has contributed to every aspect of our development, with 99 per cent of public services provided online today.

Digitalisation has improved the efficiency and accessibility of the government, and has had a positive impact on the socio-economic development of Estonia. This was well exemplified during the Covid-19 pandemic, when digital services allowed the continuation of day-to-day business and our government did not have to disrupt public services.

In 1995, Estonia ranked 76th place in GDP per capita, but today we rank 35.

We can proudly say that by using digital signatures, the Estonian government saves 2 per cent of GDP annually, a significant amount of money that can be invested in sectors such as education. Timewise, people save an average of five working days a year by using e-signatures.  

Estonia is a digital nation. Therefore, we are interested in sharing our experience from the past decades in building an advanced digital society.

Barriers to digitalisation

In Estonia, we put a lot of emphasis on being a human-centric digital government. When developing and implementing digital solutions in the public sector, the fundamental rights of people, democracy and the rule of law are protected, and the opportunities provided by technology are used to promote them.

It has been crucial for getting people to trust online services in the health sector. This also means that when developing and offering public services, it is guaranteed that everyone has an equal opportunity to participate in the digital society and use digital services.

Unfortunately, this is not the case all over the world. Inclusiveness is not a natural feature and neither is an open, free and secure internet. Many people do not have access to the internet as they lack the necessary infrastructure and tools.

Another challenge is the lack of necessary digital skills, which disproportionately affects women and girls and is linked to access to education.

In Estonia, we started our digital transformation by teaching basic skills, to adults as well. We should keep in mind that digitalisation is not a goal in itself. The value lies in being user-centric. During the development and design process, the focus should be on the end-user, not the service deliverer.

Impact of Covid-19

The Covid-19 crisis has put digital technologies higher on our agendas than ever before.

On the one hand, technology has allowed many to stay connected, work and attend school from afar. It has boosted the development of innovative digital tools among governments and the private sector alike. The UN e-Government Survey 2020 shows increased uptake of digital solutions by governments worldwide with the lower-middle-income countries being the most active group.

But on the other hand, the digital divide has increased as well. For example, UNESCO reveals that more than 40 per cent of learners do not have internet access at home. This number is higher than 80 per cent in regions such as sub-Saharan Africa.

This has forced us to rethink digital transformation. The pandemic has made it clear that we as people, businesses, governments and countries share similar problems; and that our solutions to these problems are similar too.

Online education and distance learning, telemedicine and remote healthcare, and digital authentication and signatures are just a few examples of digital responses to the issues we all face. This means that we do not need to invest in new, duplicate and costly digital developments, but follow on from what is already in place.

Estonia has shared our expertise in digital education with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), as the organisation needed to expand its use of education technology to support remote learning during the pandemic and started to develop an ambitious agency-wide digital learning strategy.

We helped UNRWA to develop its strategy to improve access to devices, boost connectivity, and develop capacities for learning and teaching using educational technology and study materials offered through an interactive learning platform.

Developing and implementing digital public goods is one of the solutions we can use to support digitalisation and boost post-Covid economic recovery. This leads to another important aspect – public-private partnership. E-Estonia was built together with our private companies and they did not leave us behind during the crisis.

Many Estonian IT companies created solutions to help citizens and support the country, reducing the pressure on the economy. Moreover, as 99 per cent of our public services are online, the impact was relatively minimal compared to other countries.

Supporting and growing together

Digital transformation positively impacts all 17 SDGs directly or indirectly. Digital solutions reduce poverty by widening job opportunities, allowing remote working, and increasing agricultural yields and sustainable management of natural resources. Furthermore, it helps build equal, peaceful and healthy societies and boost innovation.

We have seen very inspiring results in our bilateral projects – for example, in crisis regions or refugee camps where teaching digital skills to Syrian or Congolese refugees offers people opportunities to take digital courses, market their business or services better, or in some cases even offer their services digitally to customers abroad.

Besides bilateral digitalisation projects, we are a founding member of the European Union's Digital for Development (D4D) hub. Within the African branch of the hub, we have taken a co-lead on e-governance together with Germany.

Estonia is also contributing to the African Union – European Union D4D Hub project, which supports African institutions to lay the groundwork for inclusive digital transformation, providing technical assistance and promoting the exchange of knowledge and dialogue between different stakeholders.

Digital public goods (DPGs) have further opened new possibilities for accelerating this progress and helping to attain the SDGs. DPGs are designed to be collective digital solutions, freely available for all to modify, add to, and deploy. They can significantly lower the technical burden of building any individual digital public infrastructure system, while allowing for customisation and innovation.

Eva-Maria Liimets is the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Estonia

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