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Never before have the priorities for EU external action been so intricately linked to its own internal objective. The EU and EU Delegations are confronted with a challenging mission: promoting development through digitalisation can come at the expense of democracy and human rights given that the fastest path towards that goal can often deepen already existing divides in society.

The EU has an opportunity to promote a just transition to digital economies that does not reproduce and enhance already existing inequalities or close down civic space, but rather empowers citizens through technology. These goals can be achieved by adopting a consistent approach towards programming that targets digitalisation, development and democracy simultaneously, or what we call the Digital-Democracy-Development Nexus – the 3D Nexus.

Our new paper The Digital-Democracy-Development Nexus: How to effectively advance the EU’s Digital Policy abroad explains this approach to programming and looks at 6 areas where the EU can tackle digitalisation while strengthening development and democracy at the same time. These are: automated decision-making in public administration; data protection; internet access; accountability and control of tech; a free information environment; and the digital divide.

The 3D Nexus should be seen as a first filter that the EU and EU Delegations could apply in order for programmes focused on digitalisation to have long-term positive outcomes for society. EU Delegations must be extremely careful and strategic if they do not want to undermine the EU’s foreign digital policy on the multilateral front. Given the speed of the digital transformation, it is not a matter of discussing if democracy or development come first: either they come hand in hand as part of the digital revolution, or digitalisation will further entrench inequalities and facilitate a further restriction of fundamental freedoms by greater state and non-state controls.

The paper focuses on 6 concrete issues where the Digital-Democracy-Development Nexus comes into play and where EU Delegations could use digitalisation to advance both development and democracy. These issues are:

  1. Automated decision-making in public administration
  2. Data protection
  3. Internet access
  4. Accountability and control of tech
  5. A free information environment, and
  6. The digital divide.

The global nature of digitalisation, combined with the local impact of its consequences, places all the challenges and possible responses outlined above in a sort of operational middle-ground, a policy arena where the multilateral and the bilateral must converge to deliver results that do not undermine each other.

Policy dialogue is going to play a crucial role in aligning the EU’s own interests with those of its like-minded allies and in shaping the EU’s support to digital transformation in ways that contribute to development without undermining democracy. To this end, digital policy dialogue needs to be truly inclusive and participatory.

The growing importance of innovative financing in the EU’s portfolio presents a timely opportunity to engage the private sector in line with the public sector reforms that are being supported through budget support.

Given the rapid pace of digital transformation and its tendency to broaden already existing gaps, EU Delegations will have to double their efforts in providing capacity development and technical assistance to all the actors involved, including civil society, policy-makers, public oversight institutions, media, women and under-represented groups, political parties and parliaments.

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