ADB Vice-President Bruce Gosper joined a panel discussion on “How can Digital and Data Drive Post-COVID-19 Economic Recovery” on 6 May 2021. The panel discussed issues covering the social impacts of the digital divide and what roles and responsibilities do technology leaders have in helping shape the future of Asia and rest of the world. Below are excerpts of his answers.

Question: For economies in Asia which are performing, and also equally economies that are suffering, what steps should we take to create the empowerment that reduces the (digital) divide. What policies are needed and how do we lobby for the marginalized group to be more included? 

Bruce Gosper, Vice-President for Administration and Corporate Management, ADB

Bruce Gosper, Vice-President for Administration and Corporate Management, ADB

Vice-President Gosper: ADB has rolled out around $30 billion in loans, in grants, and technical assistance with a workforce that’s now spread across six continents, and frankly we couldn’t have done that without the connectivity our IT team has given us. The way we’ve been able to connect a dispersed workforce, developed more than 50 new digital products, and do our business to get assistance to people simply wouldn’t have been possible 5 or 10 years ago. So, the environment we’re in is quite a different one.  

Three things to note: One is the pockets of poverty are significantly deepened by the pandemic. We’re dealing with a challenging environment in which many countries have faced significant setbacks over the past period. And so we’re working from a more difficult situation, and in a sense many challenges that we faced pre-pandemic — digitalization and supply chain shifts, demographic, climate, and gender — they’ve all been compressed together. In fact, the environment for response to that has become more challenging.  

On the other hand, some of us have pointed out there are some bright signals, that we have plenty of tools, which if applied rightly, by a government working with business, we can do some good things. We’ve certainly seen a surge in e-commerce. We’ve seen deployment of many technological solutions. We’ve seen the proliferation of new business models, and often done by SMEs as much as big business. And those are all promising signs for where we go from here. 

I think we’ve done quite a bit of work and looking across the region we see where the employment opportunities will be in the period ahead. And digitalization will actually empower opportunities in those sorts of sectors.  

If you look at tourism, which is a massive employer, across the region, there’s no doubt that its recovery will depend on new skill sets, particularly around health and hygiene, but also the movement of people. So there’s an enormous amount of work to do there.  

Some of the vulnerabilities in supply chains have been shown by the pandemic. In the first 6 months particularly, it took an enormous effort to address that. So we need more efficient, different levels of automation, more levels of 4.0 technology. 

For garment manufacturers, again a big employer, the prospect of doing things in a more sustainable way that allows customization of product and smart factories is really an important opportunity. In electronics, we are seeing those supply chain shifts. But if we want to be more than an enabler of jobs in the low-end simple assembly or packaging, and we want people to move up the value chain and get better jobs and all the way that flows through into the broader economies, we’ve got to think about whether we have the human skills that are necessary to do that, and how we actually support that skill development.   

And then, of course, the digital trade which is a $1.7 trillion economy. It can double over the next 3 or 4 years, but there’s so much work to do in connectivity and skills development to enable SMEs to be part of this, in tracing out IT business process outsourcing (BPO) road maps, all these sorts of things. So, there are plenty of challenges and some significant setbacks, but the response to the pandemic has given us some real pointers to what we need to do and in what sectors. 

Question: What is interoperability and how should governments collaborate, since we do not have an  global agency for tech or data? 

Vice-President Gosper: We don’t have one single agency for this. And we probably won’t have one single agency that deals with the digital agenda or data flows and the likes. There are bits and pieces, and it’s a bit like a patchwork frankly. There’s an awful lot happening, and developing countries are involved in some of them.  

You look at the work within the World Trade Organization (WTO) on e-commerce rules, for instance, so that’s a negotiation that’s got around about 80% of the global economy actively represented. You look at the way digital economy agreements are rolling out. The most advanced, even more advanced than the Trans-Pacific Partnership, is probably the Australia-Singapore Digital Economy Agreement which addresses data protection source code, digital identities, rules around AI, e-certification, all these sorts of things which actually are important enablers for our economies, not just at the border, but right across the economy. But it is a patchwork, and like most areas of global governance, they’re not fixed by one institution, or one process. It is a patchwork which has to be knitted together by people who actually actively work to have multilateral frameworks that protect the weakest that enable growth for all and that spread the benefits that have transparent and fair regulation, which provides opportunity.  

So it has to be a global endeavor, it has to be one that’s led multilaterally and by institutions like the G20, by the multilateral development banks, by organizations like the WTO and the World Intellectual Property Organization and others. And this is the big area of global governance to be addressed over the next decade or two, and it will take a lot of work, and there will be a lot of different pieces that have to fall into place. But it’s quite an important piece of work. 

In conclusion, it’s not cheap to digitalize. It requires significant resources and one of the things the ADB has launched in the last few days has been the Asia Pacific Tax Hub, which is all about ensuring the smallest and weakest economies can actually get on a sustainable revenue path, so that they can actually fund these sorts of developments and it’s a critically important thing for the region.