Digital technologies have profoundly changed and revolutionized many aspects of our lives. Information is readily available, people across the world connect via social media channels, and during the COVID-19 pandemic classrooms have largely moved online.
The advent of the digital age also brought about a new range of solutions to tackle development and humanitarian challenges more quickly and efficiently. Blockchain technology enables improved cash transfers, drones and geographic information systems help to address food insecurity, and e-government solutions are used to make public service delivery more transparent and efficient (to name just a few examples).
The increasingly global reach of information and communication technologies (ICTs) also opens up opportunities for accelerating social and economic development in Nepal. While there are considerable variations between provinces, according to data published by the Central Bureau of Statistics for the National Census 2078 (2021), 73 percent of Nepali households have access to a smartphone and 37.8 percent of households have internet access. However, digital access does not guarantee equal benefits for everyone. Ultimately, its impact will be determined by the informed, inclusive, and safe usage of such solutions. The digital revolution has also created new risks, particularly to human rights and further exacerbating existing inequalities that are paramount to be considered.
Given the way in which digital transformation has been reshaping international cooperation, Helvetas is working to adopt a digital by default approach to digitalization. This does not mean that digital solutions are always the right approach, but rather that the potential of using digital technologies should be considered for everything we do. The idea is to maximize digital opportunities, while mitigating potential risks.
Digital tools to improve access to information, knowledge and services in Nepal
The uses of digital tools to create impact and scale are as diverse as the thematic areas Helvetas Nepal works in. Digital solutions can enable greater access to information, knowledge, and services. For instance, they provide opportunities for government actors to support the management of internal government functions, increase civic engagement in governance processes and enhance the quality and accessibility of public service delivery. The Safer Migration (SaMi) Programme, a bilateral initiative of the Government of Nepal and the Government of Switzerland, has supported the Department of Foreign Employment to establish the Foreign Employment Information Management System. The system allows to digitally manage a range of services and processes related to foreign employment such as labor permits for aspiring migrants or approval of demands from countries of destination for recruiting agencies. Through this digital support, the process is more efficient, transparent, and significantly reduces the need to travel for migrant workers. The system will also be expanded to make an important contribution to improving access to justice by allowing people to filing complaints digitally, which currently requires migrant workers’ physical presence in Kathmandu.
Similarly, digital tools are also an important tool for capacity development. In the framework of the Promotion of Youth Engagement in the Local Governance Process (PROYEL) project funded by the European Union, e-learning courses will complement other trainings and workshops to capacitate young Nepali citizens to be more engaged in local governance processes. Specifically, the project plans to launch three online courses in the Nepali language on human and fundamental rights, constitutional and civic literacy, and gender equality and social inclusion. Helvetas Nepal has previously used a digital learning approach to deliver trainings during the lockdowns of the COVID-19 pandemic, which allowed to reach widely dispersed training participants.
Raising awareness for inclusive digital access
Crucially, efforts also need to focus on establishing favorable framework conditions that promote digital inclusion, allowing everyone to benefit from and contribute to digital spaces equitably and safely. Digital inequality is multidimensional with women in rural areas often being the most disadvantaged, especially in countries where digital hubs are concentrated around cities. The gender digital divide prevents women from fully participating in digital spaces and limits their access to digital opportunities.
In Nepal, according to the findings from the LIRNEAsia AfterAccess survey, women are 19 percent less likely to own a mobile phone compared to men and 14 percent less likely to use the internet. The podcast produced by Helvetas Nepal through the PROYEL project “Bridging the Gap: Young Women in Digital Spaces” explored the experiences of women and digitalization in the context of Nepal together with three young women who are actively working to break barriers for women to equitably benefit from digital opportunities. The three young leaders used the platform to advocate not only for increased access to digitalization for women, but also highlighted the importance of ensuring that access is meaningful and safe. Helvetas Nepal is planning to leverage this digital format of podcasts more frequently in the future to provide young voices a platform for important issues.
Use of ICTs for project management and monitoring
While digital means are very impactful in reaching project objectives, they are also indispensable for project management and data-driven decision making. Since 2005, Helvetas’ trail bridge project has gradually been developing web-based information systems to support the planning, implementation, monitoring, and maintenance of trail bridges. The systems have greatly contributed to increased efficiency, made planning more systematic and has proven to be paramount to increase resilience. When mobility was greatly restricted during the lockdowns of the COVID-19 pandemic, the information systems proved indispensable as they enabled the continuation of most project activities through distance monitoring. The system allows the project to manage and monitor large numbers of bridges under-construction (around 1,500) in real time. Furthermore, the systems are not only applicable for new constructions, but also for flagging, planning, and recording the execution of major maintenance work on critical bridges in the systems database. With the end of the program, those tools are gradually being handed over to the government. Ensuring systems compatibility and uniform naming conventions with the government’s existing systems right from the inception of those tools have been critical for this process.
Digital systems can also be important to manage complex project designs. For instance, Samriddhi project works with a results-based financing model for its skills development program that rewards success in employment rates and provides incentives for training providers to include women and other disadvantaged groups in trainings. To manage this complex structure, the project has developed a web-based database system allowing to record all project data. Since this year, the traditional paper-based monitoring and verification processes have also successfully been digitalized using the data collection tool KoBo Toolbox and the collected data is then visualized with Microsoft Power BI.
Similarly, InElam project started working with project partners to explore digital solutions for tracking data from the trainings provided while simultaneously supporting them to identify and address their digital needs. This is expected to help service providers and partners track the progress of stakeholders even after the completion of direct support to them has ended. It is anticipated that the database system will be rolled out at the partners’ level by the end of 2023.
Leveraging digitalization for development programming is a continuous and iterative learning process, which takes strong partnerships, collaboration, and knowledge exchanges across organizations, sectors, and geographies to create the highest impact. Through knowledge exchanges and regular capacity building trainings for staff on using digital tools for monitoring, evaluation, and data visualization, Helvetas Nepal is determined to continuously enhance its capability to support digital programming and leverage data for informed decision-making.