The imperative for digital development and public private partnerships in Least Developed Countries

a map of the world highlighting data centers

On March 5, the United Nations Secretary-General will convene leaders from around the world, civil society and the private sector in Doha, Qatar, with the goal of accelerating sustainable development for the world’s Least Developed Countries (LDCs). Fifty years after the LDCs were classified by the UN as nations most in need of social, economic and environmental opportunities to create growth, these 46 countries combined account for 13% of the world’s population, but only about 1.5% of global GDP and less than 1% of global trade. It is clear that more needs to be done.

We are taking a number of new steps to use digital technology to expand opportunity in the LDCs, including a new collaboration with Liquid Intelligent Technologies to bring internet coverage to an additional 20 million people in Africa through Microsoft’s Airband Initiative, a new skilling initiative with the International Organization of Employers and Synapse to reach 20,000 youth, women and entrepreneurs, an agreement with OCP Africa to scale its digital agriculture platform and better support farmers on the ground, and an ongoing project with Planet Labs and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) to use AI and satellite data to increase understanding of climate migration patterns and deliver new insights that will help agencies and governments to better support the health and wellbeing of people around the world.

As part of our ongoing commitment to the mission and ambition of the United Nations, Microsoft is co-chairing its LDC5 Private Sector Forum where we will explore ways that digital development can further these goals and help make them a reality.

The private sector can play an important role in creating opportunities for the 880 million people living in LDCs, where only 36% of the population uses the internet today, and it’s important for Microsoft to do its part. In advance of LDC5 next week, Microsoft is sharing new details around related partnerships focused on digital infrastructure, digital skilling and digital development.

Microsoft’s Airband Initiative will continue to scale its global footprint through a new agreement with Liquid Intelligent Technologies to make internet coverage available to an additional 20 million people in Africa by 2025. This partnership marks an additional milestone on the recent commitment to extend high-speed internet access to 250 million people living in unserved and underserved areas around the world including 100 million in Africa.

Airband was established to extend high-speed access to those without and the opportunities afforded by being connected to the digital world. The initiative brings together a wide-ranging ecosystem to design, implement and support locally relevant connectivity programs including middle-mile broadband providers, local ISPs for last-mile connectivity, energy partners, international organizations and local governments.

Liquid operates Africa’s largest independently owned network with over 100,000 kilometers (62,000 miles) of fiber stretching across the continent. This program will reach a number of markets across Africa including LDCs such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Zambia. Additionally, the partnership will increase availability of high-speed connectivity in Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania and South Africa.

Digital skilling: increasing capacity building and security

Infrastructure, while essential, is just one piece of the puzzle. Entrepreneurs and workers in this region also require skills to make the best use of this new connectivity. Skilling programs exist today in pockets across LDCs, but too many people are excluded because of race, gender, geography, displacement or other barriers. That’s why Microsoft’s programs, partnerships and resources are designed to meet people where they are on their skilling journey. But this cannot be accomplished by one entity alone. We must bring together UN agencies, governments, local stakeholders and the private sector to mobilize resources in the hardest-to-connect communities.

Today, we are reinforcing our partnership with the International Organization of Employers and partner Synapse to train 5,000 youth and women entrepreneurs in each of four LDCs (DRC, Lesotho, Senegal and Uganda) for a total of 20,000 people, using LinkedIn and Microsoft training content. The entrepreneurs will learn digital, business and employability skills. In addition, as access to the internet expands, more resources will be needed to defend both a growing digital ecosystem and the people learning their way around the web. One critical piece of our Skills for Jobs program is focused on helping grow the cybersecurity talent pool including in Africa including through free access to LinkedIn cybersecurity courses.

Digital development: building a platform for more resilient agriculture

As we work to upskill entrepreneurs and grow the digital economy in each of these countries, we recognize that assisting the agricultural sector – which constitutes a majority of the workforce in many LDCs – is critical to growing the local economy.

In this time of increasing food insecurity, enhancing the resilience and livelihoods for smallholder farmers is needed to drive increased agriculture productivity, including reducing losses in the food production chain. With the increasing impacts of more frequent extreme weather events, adaptation and resilience are of crucial importance to the food system’s transformation.

OCP Africa, which supplies fertilizer solutions adapted to local conditions and to the needs of soils and crops across Africa, is partnering with Microsoft to reinforce and scale its Digital Agriculture Platform. This enhances the quality of farmers’ production, enables them to better manage their businesses. Partnership between the two companies will scale the agri-platforms rapidly with new and existing geographies, enhancing the services offered and developing new services. With Microsoft, this effort will support 40 million farmers and agri-stakeholders in Africa by 2030.

Employing data and AI to help humans and the planet

Our warming planet is causing temperatures to rise around the world, with a greater burden falling on underdeveloped nations. Resilience and adaptation to the changing climate will be critical over the next 30 years. With the help of AI, satellite imagery and predictive modeling, we have the ability to anticipate what will be required to bolster global food security, improve population health, and strengthen infrastructure to support vulnerable communities. Microsoft is collaborating with Planet Labs PBC, and IHME at the University of Washington to better understand these patterns and characteristics. Our goal is to produce new insights that allow governments, UN and aid organizations, and supply chain operators to deliver essential resources to protect the health and wellbeing of people across the globe.

Advancements with AI also reflect an enormous opportunity to make progress on delivering the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). While there are no silver bullets, transformational technology such as AI provides new and real ways to advance the SDGs. This gives further urgency to the need for digital infrastructure and digital skilling, to get these tools into people’s hands in LDCs and avoid a new gap developing.

Microsoft at LDC5: working together to advance SDGs

Microsoft’s role in the private sector forum at LDC5 builds on our expanded efforts to partner with the UN and other international organizations to help advance the SDGs as part of the 2030 Agenda. As we underscored at the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly last September, we believe technology is an essential tool to supercharge progress, of which we are at the halfway point to the goal of delivering on these goals by 2030. We have made some strides, but there is much more to be done.

Microsoft’s commitment to advancing the SDGs is rooted in our 20-year history of working with the UN and supporting the UN charter in line with our mission: To empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more. In 2020, we created a team to deepen and expand Microsoft’s commitment to the UN’s mission and its agencies, multilateral and regional institutions, development banks, governments, local communities and stakeholders.

In 2023, the rapid changes in transformative technologies, like AI, and the ability to deepen multistakeholder partnerships – with efforts such as our UN and international organizations team – provide real opportunity to advance the SDGs. As an SDG advocate, I hope we can collectively capitalize on the opportunity at hand. The need for public-private partnerships has never been clearer. This is not a philanthropic exercise, but rather a business imperative ­– And a call to action for all of us to do more.

It is essential for us to continue to innovate, together.

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