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Speakers in Social Development Commission Examine Ways of Equitably Using Technology to Spur Pandemic Recovery, Overcome Socioeconomic Woes

The digital divide — between younger and older persons, industrialized and developing countries or rural and urban areas — is exacerbating existing patterns of inequalities, delegates in the Commission for Social Development stressed today, as they explored ways to equitably use technology to surmount the most pressing obstacles to “building back better”.

Wide calls for solidarity in emerging from a global health crisis unparalleled in modern history rang throughout the afternoon general discussion, held in a virtual format, as delegates focused on sectors in particular need of attention.

For Africa, digital technologies have the potential to ensure access to life-long education, health care, decent work and affordable housing, said Leon Kacou Adom (Côte d’Ivoire), speaking for the African Group.  He expressed concern that four in five people in least developed countries lack access to the Internet, stressing that obstacles to accessing and harnessing new technologies must urgently be addressed.  A multidimensional approach that fosters speed, stability and affordability is needed.  “It is important to act together,” he said, notably in support of capacity-building and the transfer of information and communications technology (ICT) on mutually agreed terms.

To that point, Ana Mendes Godinho, Minister for Labour, Solidarity and Social Security of Portugal, speaking for the European Union, described the “Team Europe” package to help partner countries mitigate the socioeconomic effects of COVID-19.  Strengthening social fairness is key to overcoming the crisis.  “The need to fight the digital divide to promote social and economic development worldwide has become even more pressing,” she said.  She called for “the right mix” of skills to learn, work, interact and effectively participate in the societies of the new digital age.  The digital transition must cater to all, have a human-centred outlook and contribute to sustainable development.

“Our destinies are linked,” said Ahmed Tidiane Sakho (Guinea), speaking for the “Group of 77” developing countries and China, stressing that the rising incidence of homelessness is a “sterling” example of how a lack of access to education and other crucial social services has played out.  He called for North-South, South-South and triangular cooperation to fight poverty, and a renewed multilateral approach.  The international community must place people at the heart of the global response to COVID-19 by promoting equitable access to vaccines at affordable prices, and by investing in public health and medical infrastructure.

In the area of education, Cosmos Richardson (Saint Lucia), speaking for the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), said the pandemic disrupted the education and careers of more than 5 million students and 200,000 teachers in the region, forcing countries to dramatically adjust to a hybrid system of learning.  At the same time, the crisis encouraged the rapid implementation of policies aimed at a deeper integration of ICT in the education sector.  Technology infrastructure frameworks must now be put in place to bridge the digital divide.  “We recognize that this requires a multidimensional approach,” she said.

Focusing on the labour market, Kaisa Pekonen, Minister for Social Affairs and Health of Finland, speaking for the Nordic countries, called for a human-centred future of work and pointed to the Nordic model, which has facilitated fair transitions to new jobs.  Work processes must be updated to accommodate displaced workers and improve labour-market matching.  In addition, she called for implementing the United Nations Decade of Healthy Ageing, stressing that “we must cherish older persons as contributing members of communities and families, care givers and consumers,” among other roles.  As Chair of the Nordic Council of Ministers in 2021, Finland will “shine a light” on building back better by promoting the rights of women and girls.

The use of digital technologies to fully protect vulnerable groups also took centre stage, with Rene Ruidiaz, Chargé d ́Affairs of Chile, speaking for the Group of Friends of Older Persons, pointing out that the pandemic led to a rise in violence against older persons, especially older women.  National efforts must better target their needs.  The capacity of States to collect statistics and qualitative information — disaggregated by sex, age, and other factors, such as marital status and disability — must be bolstered to better assess their situation.  He called on the United Nations to support these efforts through funding for research and data-collection, stressing that intergenerational dialogue, solidarity and co-existence must also be actively fostered.

Along similar lines, Vanessa Frazier (Malta), speaking for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transexual and Intersex (LGBTI) Core Group, said digital technologies must be used to counter hate speech, cyberbullying, cyberstalking and online violence.  She encouraged the Commission to highlight the importance of enacting national policies based on international human rights law and full inclusion for LGBTI persons, laying out myriad risks of using artificial intelligence for identification, tracking or profiling individuals without proper technical, regulatory, legal and ethical safeguards.  “Standing up against violations and abuses of human rights, including violence and discrimination, in all its forms and in all spaces, including online, is not and should never be a matter of controversy,” she emphasized.

T.S. Tirumurti (India), associating himself with the Group of 77, said that his country’s social development agenda largely focuses on the deployment of digital technologies to alleviate poverty, provide better health services, promote agricultural reforms, and ensure time-bound delivery of Government services.  During the pandemic, the Financial Inclusion Initiative, one of the biggest programmes of its kind in the world, has made it possible to make direct transfer payments to 200 million people.  Through the Arogya Setu mobile app, India has been able to assess the risk of exposure to the novel coronavirus, he said, adding that another app is being used to target groups for vaccination.

Patcharee Arayakul (Thailand), associating herself with the Group of 77, said her country’s COVID-19 response is based on a whole-of-society and whole-of-Government approach through an ad hoc master plan.  A single command mechanism provides scientific and fact-based information to the public, including through Facebook briefings by a non-partisan doctor.  Long-term investment in public health and the engagement of more than 1 million village health volunteers have contributed to Thailand’s success in bringing the pandemic under effective control.  She added that Thailand is using digital technologies to promote social development and to expand protection services for vulnerable groups.

Rounding out the discussion, Egypt’s representative said that, with 10 years to go to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, “the world has to come together”.  She noted how information and communication technologies — such as e‑kiosks — have made it possible to reduce administrative costs for delivering social protection services.  Investment in such technologies also enabled a wider and safer response to the pandemic, with the Government and civil society working together to leave no one behind.  She pointed to the introduction of the “Digital Egypt” programme, which aims to unify all digital services into a single platform.

Also speaking during the general discussion were senior officials and representatives of Peru, Kenya, Argentina and Zimbabwe.

The general discussion followed a morning Ministerial Forum, in which senior Government officials shared national and regional experiences in efforts to ensure inclusive, resilient and sustainable recovery from COVID-19.

The Commission for Social Development will reconvene at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, 10 February, to continue its fifty-ninth session.

Ministerial Forum

In the morning, the Commission held — via video-teleconference — a Ministerial Forum on the theme “Promoting multilateralism to realize inclusive, resilient and sustainable recovery from COVID-19 in the context of the decade of action and delivery for sustainable development and its social dimension”.  Moderated by María del Carmen Squeff (Argentina), Chair of the fifty-ninth session of the Commission for Social Development, it featured presentations by Daniel Arroyo, Minister for Social Development of Argentina; Ariunzaya Ayush, Minister for Labour and Social Protection of Mongolia; Juliane Seifert, State Secretary of the Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth of Germany; and Anar Karimov, Deputy Minister of Labour and Social Protection of Population of the Republic of Azerbaijan.

Ms. SQUEFF said that a number of global leaders have been addressing the issue under discussion, including Pope Francis, who has called for fresh thinking on ways to emerge from the COVID-19 crisis better.  “This pandemic showed how weak we are” and how important it is to build bridges and to listen to the representatives of various regions of the world, where much is going on, she said.

Mr. ARROYO discussed various policies that Argentina has implemented within the context of the pandemic, such as a food card scheme for vulnerable families.  Without such schemes, extreme poverty, which was at about 10 per cent, would have surged to 28 per cent.  Within community kitchens, digital classrooms have been established, benefiting children whose families may have only one cellular phone to share among its members.  Plans are being made to improve 400 neighbourhoods that lack basic services such as running water and sanitation.  “We have to ensure a fairer world, particularly with those who have the least,” he said, adding that 2021 for Argentina will be “a year of rebuilding” in the areas of digital inclusion, urbanization and food security.

Ms. AYUSH said that the pandemic prompted the Government of Mongolia to take urgent action to save jobs, support livelihoods and provide social protection.  Steps taken included increased pensions and child benefit payments, concessional loans for small businesses, the expansion of e-learning and one-stop service centres for victims of domestic violence.  Labour legislation is being revised to make the advantages of technology accessible to everyone.  Going forward, policies and regulations will need to be coordinated to shift Mongolia away from a pro-welfare attitude, prevent an over-expansion and devaluation of social services, and move towards a more people-centred and socially oriented approach.  She went on to stress the need to speed up Mongolia’s digital transformation, given the transition to virtual services across all sectors, and to promote step-by-step e‑learning to meet a growing need for improved digital literacy.

Ms. SEIFERT said that while the COVID-19 virus is the same everywhere, its effects are not.  It makes a difference if citizens have access to a stable health system, housing and public infrastructure that allow for social distancing, and if vaccines are available.  The European Union has laid the foundations not only for a sustained economic recovery, but also a social recovery through a €1.8 trillion stimulus package, the largest every financed by the bloc.  Within Germany, the focus is on keeping as many jobs as possible by making it easier to qualify for short-term employment allowances.  Financial support for low-income families has been increased and parents given the ability to take more days off to tend to their children when schools are closed.  The Digital Angel project teaches older persons how to make better use of digital tools.

Mr. KARIMOV recalled that Azerbaijan adopted special programmes in April 2020 which helped to bring the pandemic’s impact to a manageable level.  Those include protecting the jobs of public sector employees, guidance for private sector employers and $100 lump sum payments for 600,000 registered unemployed persons.  An electronic information system makes it possible to strengthen social protections and monitor informal employment.  Basic needs have been provided for persons over the age of 65 who are at greater risk of COVID-19 infection, including access to medicines and payment of utility bills.  Food packages have been delivered several times to 110,000 vulnerable families, $24 million has been set aside to cover the tuition fees of students from socially vulnerable groups, and $6 million has been spent to cover household electricity bills.  In total, Azerbaijan has spent about $360 million on employment and social welfare support, he said.

When the floor opened for discussion, the representative of China underscored the huge divide between North and South when it comes to the delivery of COVID-19 vaccines, which should be an affordable public good.  China has given access to its vaccines to 13 developing countries, with another 38 to follow, in addition to contributing doses to the COVAX facility.  He added that post-pandemic reconstruction will be “a long and treacherous journey” requiring greater investment in health, education and public services, along with greater assistance to developing countries to help them implement the Sustainable Development Goals.

The representative of Argentina asked the panellists for their views on the role that South-South cooperation can play to improve living standards and ensure sustainability.

The representative of the Philippines discussed the way in which her country has embraced multilateralism and partnerships to cope with the COVID-19 crisis and thanked the World Health Organization (WHO) for its guidance.  The next big challenge is for multilateralism to help build the resilience of every individual in every country.  She added that it may not be possible to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals without a recommitment to making multilateralism and partnerships work.

The representative of Cuba said that it is regrettable and criminal to see developed countries engage in a race to find COVID-19 vaccines and to treat their own people first.  That is harming development in all countries.  She added that Cuba will not yield to the inhumane embargo imposed on her country by the United States.  Cuba has its own vaccines as well as the ability to produce more doses than it needs.

Mr. ARROYO said that South-South cooperation is very significant for his country, not only for strategic decision-making but also for an exchange of experiences.  Quoting his country’s President, he called for the creation of a “new normal” and a new society in the aftermath of the pandemic, with a series of citizen’s rights based on necessary conditions.

Ms. AYUSH said that despite its negative impacts, the pandemic has brought the world closer together.  Everyone now is taking a step back and rethinking their well-being.  “Stay safe, stay healthy and stay positive,” she said, adding that she hopes the Commission can meet in person in 2022.

Ms. SEIFERT pointed to efforts by European Union member States to implement the European Pillar of Social Rights, including measures for decent work, minimum wage and protections for low-income families.  The Social Pillar is comparable to a new social contract that puts a strong focus on social justice, she said, adding that it can be a blueprint for others to combat inequality and reduce social vulnerabilities.

Mr. KARIMOV said that digital technology can make it easier to access different kinds of social services, reducing bureaucratic hurdles for vulnerable groups which also creating opportunities for, for instance, persons with disabilities. 

Also speaking were representatives of Burundi, Morocco, Dominican Republic, Malawi and Ethiopia, as well as the European Union.


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