COVID-19 Presents an Opportunity for Digital Transformation in the Caribbean

In keeping with CARICOM’s 2014 decision to establish the CARICOM region as a Single Information and Communication Technology (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 region at affordable prices to citizens. Other outcomes include:

  • Equitable, affordable access to broadband information and communication technologies, which are secure, ubiquitous and reliable; and facilitate the rapid acquisition, processing and dissemination of information.
  • The use of ICTs to gather information and knowledge, analyze and disseminate it effectively for citizens’ social and economic progress.
  • Enhancement of regional trade, innovation, competitiveness and citizen welfare; and 
  • Practical support for the realization of the CARICOM digital economy.

Unfortunately, these outcomes haven’t been realized because the required human and financial resources for the implementation of the CARICOM Single ICT Space initiative wasn’t allocated. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced some very fundamental changes in social interactions and business dealings. 

In order to contain the spread of the virus, countries closed their borders; locked down non-essential businesses; limited the size of public gatherings; introduced stay-at-home rules, and closed schools.   

These measures created a shift in thinking as citizens and businesses looked to alternative ways, through the digital platform, of working, conducting business, learning and socializing. This has created an increased demand for broadband services. 

But serious deficiencies were obvious. For example, not all students benefitted from this initiative due to the absence of internet connectivity or access to computers or smartphones.

All CARICOM countries adopted partial digital solutions to administer economic 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 forms to apply for the support offered.

These procedures were not in alignment with social distancing guidelines, as applicants had to submit completed forms in person. Young entrepreneurs in some countries developed apps and took to social media to share information on the COVID-19 pandemic situation.

However, a more holistic approach is needed to achieve Regional digitization.

CARICOM countries would have been better placed to manage the COVID-19 situation had the schedules of the Vision and Roadmap of CARICOM Single ICT Space been maintained.

COVID-19 experience makes it imperative that Caribbean countries redouble their efforts 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 digital economy is the undisputed driver of the 4th Industrial Revolution that is providing 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 digitized information and knowledge as the critical factor of production, modern information networks as a vital activity space, and the effective use of ICT as an essential driver of productivity, growth and economic structural optimization.” 

In this digitally connected world, digitization would enhance the competitiveness of CARICOM States. Globalization, spawned by inter-connectivity which has been a feature of the world over several decades, is being hyperceded by digitalization. If the Caribbean miss capitalizing on this opportunity in a timely fashion, it does so at its peril.

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

Digitization has a vital role to play in improving the region’s competitiveness. Caribbean countries must commit to improving the opportunities for their citizens to participate in a world increasingly driven by digitization.

To accelerate the development of a digital economy in CARICOM, it’s essential for Caribbean leaders to have a new mindset that focuses on a more robust approach to digitization. They need 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 (CTU) 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 their citizens and clients. This effort requires collaboration by member countries and dedication of resources at the regional and national levels. The commitment to collaborate is lacking.

The region experienced the digital realm as many persons worked from home because of COVID, but there’s a general realization that advance 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 citizens.

Accordingly, the enhanced application of digital transformation initiatives is urgent and necessary. Digital transformation is possible. The region needs to work together and accomplish it.

Adapted from an article written by the Caribbean Telecommunications Union – CTU

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