‘Least developed’ no longer: How digital transformation drove Vanuatu’s LDC graduation
Least developed countries (LDCs) are characterized as low-income countries with severe structural impediments, vulnerable to economic and environmental shocks. Graduating from LDC status requires a mix of careful deliberation, concerted efforts, and strategic leadership – no small feat for any country, never mind a Pacific island nation prone to frequent cyclones and other extreme weather. Vanuatu graduated from the LDC list in December 2020, 40 years after its independence, despite formidable challenges, such as the Category 5 Cyclone Harold which hit Vanuatu and other Pacific islands amid COVID-19 lockdowns in April 2020. In 2020, Vanuatu’s GNI per capita and the GDP growth rates were estimated at 2913 USD and 3.8 per cent respectively, above the threshold of LDCs. In the same year, it was ranked 140th out of 189 countries in UNDP’s Human Development Index (HDI), on par with countries in medium development category.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Gueterres remarked that Vanuatu’s graduation was a “testimony to years of effort resulting in hard-won sustainable development gains.”
Tech as an enabler
The success of the country’s graduation lies in the quality of leadership and consistent development efforts, with the strategic decision to embrace digital technology as a development enabler.
In driving the country’s development towards the graduation and, more broadly, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Vanuatu made a tactical choice to invest in digital infrastructure and applications to provide government services. Over the years, the country has also made steady progress in developing an enabling digital policy and regulatory frameworks, cybersecurity capabilities, and enhancing resilience to respond to recurrent natural disasters.
When it comes to natural disasters, Vanuatu remains exposed to challenges associated with climate change, shrinking natural resources, economic vulnerabilities and the pandemic that continues well into 2021.
The damaged tower of an MNO on the island of Pentecost in the aftermath of cyclone Harold. Image source: ITU
Digital transformation supported by digital connectivity and technology not only helps manage disaster risks but also connect the unconnected remote islands and extend the reach of public services.
When cyclone Harold landed on Vanuatu, the only communication channel some of its remote islands had was the satellite links ITU had helped establish in partnership with KACIFIC.
One such link had been set up at the South Malekula Secondary School. The community’s first-ever broadband experience, the link was extended to a nearby health clinic which connected the community to the rest of the country. The satellite link turned out to be the only communication channel capable of enabling the early disaster relief operation under the COVID lockdown in April 2020.
Extension of the network from South Malekula Secondary School to a health facility located on the island of Ahamb. Image source: ITU
The satellite connectivity project clearly demonstrated the importance of robust and resilient broadband digital infrastructure. We saw first-hand how the demand for digital services, such as health, governance, finance, and education, among the remote island communities, while illustrating how the communities took the initiative to connect essential facilities.
Currently, the government of Vanuatu is in the process of developing a strategic framework for digital government with a whole of government approach. In a bid to build back better, the Vanuatuan government has gone a step further and embarked on a smart islands program in selected South Malekula villages. The smart islands programme, which builds on the ongoing ITU collaboration through a digital government initiative, involves a new design and implementation framework that is demand-driven, user-centric, flexible, and is focused on sustainability, scalability, and multi-sector collaboration. The project aims to bring SDG-centred digital services that are expected to improve living conditions for island community members. The government expects the project to result in better outreach, improved service delivery, reduced inequality, and more socioeconomic innovations.
Leadership commitment, cross-sectoral partnerships and community engagement are key to advancing on the digital development pathway.
As Vanuatu accelerates its journey to achieving the SDGs, an integrated approach towards digital transformation, focused on local needs and learning from global experience is accelerating its course to the next development milestone. ITU stands ready to continue its support to Vanuatu’s digital transformation journey, as well as that of LDCs aspiring to graduate.
Header image credit: ITU via Flickr