Digitizing foreign aid

An interview with Norway’s Minister of International Development

Nikolai Astrup - digitzing foreign aid

Photo: Piaprestmo / Wikimedia Commons
Nikolai Astrup in 2012.

Marit Fosse
Geneva, Switzerland

Norwegian Minister of International Development Nikolai Astrup belongs to one of the traditional shipping families in Norway. He is young and retains the pioneering, forward-looking and innovative outlook of his ancestors.

I had a chance to meet him in Geneva, where he participated in the United Nations secretary-general’s high-level panel on digital cooperation. Astrup is one of 20 members appointed by Antonio Guterres, representing a cross-section of expertise from government, industry, civil society, academia, and the technical community. Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Jack Ma, executive chairman of Alibaba Group, are co-chairs of the panel. The panel is expected to identify policy, research, and information gaps and make proposals to strengthen international cooperation in the digital space.

MF: You seem to be the youngest member of the Erna Solberg government?

NA: That’s not the case. I think I’m seven years older than the youngest minister. Historically, there are others who have been far younger than me holding a ministerial position. I think the youngest one in the government is 33 years old.

MF: What do you think are the prospects for global digital cooperation?

NA: When I took up this [ministerial] post, it struck me that there is a huge potential in using digital tools and that these would enable us to get better results out of our traditional development aid projects. In addition, it would enable countries to progress quicker on the development path than we did.

We have many individual, outstanding examples of technologies and innovations that have contributed to excellent results, but we were lacking a strategic approach for the use of digital tools. Therefore, we elaborated a digital strategy for our development aid policy, which we launched last August. I have spent a tremendous amount of time on this issue last year. So the invitation to participate in this panel came in time and fits in well with the key issue—on how to modernize the development aid policy.

In our traditional development aid programs, we have noticed that in those cases where we have used digital tools the outcome is better, and this has given us the possibility to reach out to a larger number of beneficiaries than in the past. I’ll give you a concrete example: Last year, I visited Malawi, and a project that has benefited from Norwegian financial assistance. Some 30,000 first- and second-grade pupils in school use digital learning material between 30 minutes to one hour a week, which we would say is close to nothing. Nevertheless, the result is amazing: 100 percent improvement in literacy rates, and 60 percent increase in mathematics in comparison with those who do not participate in the project. The parents of these pupils have access to these tools in the afternoons and evenings, and they learn to read and write. So, this is a project that has a double utility.

We have also financed an application called EFAU for Syria, which is designed for Syrian children who live in refugee camps and who do not have access to ordinary schooling.

Another application we have financed is the MPESA Platform, which is a mobile phone banking service being used by more than 30 million Kenyans. This allows people who have never had a bank account or a credit card to be part of the modern economy, both in terms of savings and investments.

We are progressing quickly. Telenor told me that on broadband coverage in Myanmar, they have achieved in five years what it took them 20 years to develop in Norway. It’s all about how fast we can realize the potential hidden here. These are the inputs I have put forward in this panel, and it’s called digital public goods.

MF: What do you mean by digital public goods?

NA: That’s technologies based upon open-source, unlicensed technology that anybody can use and develop further. They are free and easily accessible for everybody—in other words, a common good.

A good example is a health information system with corresponding software, developed by the University of Oslo. The system is now being used in more than 100 countries, reaching out to 2.3 billion people.

Funnily enough, one of the countries not using it is Norway, but it is being used all over the world. It’s a system that gives information about health to the authorities and gives them the opportunity to improve health services. India has built an ICT system for its population of 1.2 billion, based on open-source technology that everybody can use. For developing countries, this is something very positive. In many cases, they do not have the capacity or resources to develop their own system, but here they can take something already existing and adopt it to their local needs. 

So, you see, there is a tremendous potential out there. What we are now trying to do is to bring together private companies and non-governmental actors to set up an accessible software platform. To arrive at this stage, we have in addition challenged UNICEF Venture to set up a prototype of a digital public goods platform. If we succeed in this venture, I think this can really make a difference at the global level. We hope that the panel will also consider it as its priority because the UN system by and large is a platform for independence. China, the United States, and India have their own approaches on how the digital future will be, so this can be a common denominator platform, which will have a tremendous potential.

I also think that the time has come to reflect on how we can use each Norwegian krone to get the most out of it, and reach out to many more people.

A lot of exciting things are taking place. Let me just mention a new alliance between FAO, UNICEF, the World Food Programme, the United Nations, Microsoft, Amazon, and Google using Big Data to predict famine, so that we will be able to come up with resources before disaster strikes, thereby saving many human beings from a tragic death, and reduce the cost at a time when international humanitarian funds do not cover needs.

MF: What other work do you do in the field of Norwegian development aid?

NA: One of the biggest challenges that we are facing is marine pollution and marine debris. Every year, 8 million metric tons of plastic waste go into the ocean. At the end of the day, something has to be done before it’s too late. We need clean oceans if we are going to be able to feed our future generations.

We have therefore launched a new development project to clean the ocean. We will use NOK 1.6 billon (about $185 million) over a four-year period. When we were looking for an organization to carry out this project, we did not find any so we took the initiative to set up a new fund under the auspices of the World Bank—the ProfBlue. Within six months we managed to set up the fund and get pledges of NOK 1 billion .

We hope that the fund will contribute to private and public investments, in particular in waste management systems. Many countries do not have proper waste management systems and the result is that the pollution goes directly into the ocean. Of course, we do collaborate with the big polluting countries, and we will also establish collaboration with Africa. They do not pollute much today but with some of the rapid economic development taking place on the African continent, which is an excellent thing, they might be faced with the same problems as in India today.

This article originally appeared in the February 22, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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Marit Fosse

Marit Fosse trained as an economist from Norwegian school of Economics and Business Administration in Bergen (Norges Handelshøyskole NHH) and then earned a doctorate in social sciences. She is the author of several books. Nansen: Explorer and Humanitarian, co-authored with John Fox, was translated into Russian/Armenian/French. In addition, Fosse is the editor of International Diplomat/Diva International in Geneva, a magazine set up 20 years ago for diplomats and persons working in the international organizations in Geneva but also elsewhere. In her free time, Fosse is an accomplished painter.