COVID-19 has brought about unprecedented challenges and disrupted socio-economic systems all over the world.
With many countries instituting lockdowns to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, it is no longer ‘business as usual’ for most sectors. The need to stay at home and stay safe has essentially brought a number of sectors that relied on traditional means of carrying out business to a standstill. In countries like Uganda where digital penetration is still low, disruption to ‘normal life’ has been most severe. Health and education sectors are perhaps among the most disrupted – with overstretched health systems and closure of schools – respectively.
More than ever, the need to ensure that no one is left behind particularly when it comes to accessing critical services like health and education cannot be overstated. Having launched its inclusive digital economy strategy in support of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), "Leaving No One Behind in the Digital Era", the UN Capital Development Fund (UNCDF) is looking to scale up usage of digital solutions for improved service delivery in the prevailing times of COVID-19 and beyond.
Using digital to address constraints in Health and Education
To better understand how digital solutions can help mitigate the constraints within the social and economic sectors including health and education in Uganda, UNCDF together with Dalberg carried out an inception study in the North and West Nile regions of the country. The findings of the inception study demonstrate that indeed digital solutions are key in addressing some of the major challenges that the education and health sectors face. Details of this study will be published in our report coming out in June 2020.
While talk that the world may never reset to the ‘normal’ as we know it is at best still immature, there’s growing anecdotal consensus of the centrality of digital in the much hailed ‘new normal’. Indeed, the COVID-19 crisis has been an eye opener to the role that digital innovation can play in alleviating constraints in the health and education sectors. UNCDF’s interventions that aim to build inclusive digital economies are aptly timed to catalyze the role that digital solutions should play in these sectors beyond the COVID-19 era.
E-learning has been heralded as a revolutionary force for the education sector, especially for low resource countries still suffering from a dire lack of skilled education workers and learning materials. In economies like Uganda, the infrastructure to support e-learning is, however, still limited. The Ministry of Education and Sports has made efforts to avail education materials to learners during the COVID-19 lockdown through programs available on television, radio and newspapers. Printed copies have also been made available through local government structures for learners that have no access to the broadcast and print media platforms. While this is a commendable effort, students still miss out on the student-teacher interaction that more advanced digital solutions offer.
As the COVID-19 narrative shifts from the ongoing public health crisis to resilience and economic recovery, partners in critical sectors like health and education must begin to focus on consolidating the digital innovations in place for improved service delivery in the post COVID-19 era. Enhancing the digital literacy skills of both teachers and learners should be a priority of government and development partners. Similarly, solutions such as e-recruitment can support inclusive and equitable recruitment of teachers. Maintaining digital records of learners and teachers will also go a long way in improving reporting and planning both at the district and the ministry level. On the payments side, digital and flexible payments of school fees ease the burden of payment on parents and help the school administrators to plan better.
Together with the Ministry of Education and Sports and the Education Service Commission in Uganda, as well as CREMOTIC and Service Corps, UNCDF is developing innovative models and approaches to facilitate continuity of education, enable access to educational content, improve the learning experience of students and teachers, provide flexible school fees payment solutions for parents, and ease the management of schools using digital tools.
The COVID-19 crisis has seen the growth of digital technologies to accelerate, complement, and enhance health services delivery. From tracing of contacts and testing, to surveillance and reporting, the role of digital health technology in addressing public health emergencies and mitigating impacts cannot be overemphasized.
Like in education, health care providers and development partners need to seriously consider the role that digital technology will play in improving health services beyond COVID-19. From better record management, improved referral systems, to better stock management and supply chain solutions, digital technologies can significantly address the challenges in the health sector in LDCs.
For instance, in Uganda, Village Health Teams (VHTs) serve as the community's initial point of contact for health. Digitization and support of the community health structure can significantly improve the quality of service, motivation, and performance of VHTs. Working in close collaboration with the Uganda Ministry of Health, BRAC and Medic Mobile, UNCDF is in the process of designing digital solutions to improve service quality, productivity, motivation, and performance of community health workers (VHTs). The solution will focus on enhancing Integrated Community Case Management (iCCM), antenatal care, post-natal care, community-based disease surveillance and VHT supervision use cases in the Northern and West Nile regions in Uganda.
Partnership for better social services
How can we each play a part in contributing to a digital economy where no one is left behind? The vision of UNCDF is to empower at least one million Ugandans to access and use services daily to improve their wellbeing.
A recently announced partnership between SafeBoda and UNCDF, is an illustration of such innovative services. Safeboda is a smart motorcycle transportation solution using uber like service. UNCDF worked with Safeboda to build an e-commerce platform that connects market vendors to customers during the ongoing COVID-19 lockdown and beyond. This new e-commerce functionality is an example of how key players can work together to promote the usage and adoption of digital solutions to address day to day challenges.
With the right approach, policy, and support, local innovators can better scale their solutions to reduce poverty and related issues in the communities. The development of digital services might require policy changes, technological support, and crowding in different players that are already operating in the ecosystem.