The year 2015 is a pivotal one for the global development agenda. During the Special UN Summit on Sustainable Development in September, 193 countries will define the worldwide development agenda for the next 15 years. If we want the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to have a real impact over the next decade, digitalization should gain more traction in the discussion on sustainable development.

The SDGs will replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that drove development during the past decade and a half. The challenge is gigantic. Very specific in nature and largely focused on developing countries, the MDGs brought momentum to the international development agenda. While there is discussion on the precise results and the dynamics that led to progress, nobody can deny the MDGs had a concrete and positive impact on the life of millions.

New development goals for a new world

The new SDGs will have to renew this momentum while at the same time acknowledging that the world has changed considerably since the MDGs were first developed. Today’s world is characterized by increased multipolarity. The current political and economic balances differ drastically compared to when the MDGs were put in place at the beginning of the millennium. These changes have affected the international development situation. At the Forum’s Annual Meeting this year, Hans Rossling pointed out that countries are gradually converging. At the same time, financial fluxes underlying development efforts have radically transformed. Both foreign direct investment and remittances currently outnumber the classic official development assistance, raising new and pertinent questions on how to finance the sustainable development agenda.

Probably one of the main differences between the MDGs and SDGs will be their scope. While the MDGs were clearly oriented towards developing countries, the SDGs aim to provide one universal and transformative agenda for future generations. Of course, this ambition has a profound impact, both in terms of content and method. Hence, a broad and inclusive process has led from 8 SDGs to 17 SDGs and 169 targets that have been identified and are currently being debated.

It is my firm belief that, leading up to the vote of the final SDGs in September, digitalization and technology should feature more prominently in discussions on the post- 2015 development agenda.

The power of digital

In the wake of digitalization megatrends such as mobile internet, the internet of things and big data, digital innovations are creating development opportunities faster than ever. Digital is a crucial driver for decent work, growth and well-being, and is having a profound impact across all sectors. The internet and digital technologies can and will boost economic, social and political development, including by vastly expanding the capacity of individuals to enjoy their right to freedom of speech and expression, which is key to empowering human rights.

Information technology is a formidable enabler of freedoms. For example, it lowers barriers to freedom of expression and allows people to get a better grasp of their lives. It should not be used to reduce the freedom of people. All 193 countries subscribing to the new international development agenda should be aware that their engagement does not come without strings.

The ultimate goal of the SDGs is to enable individuals, organizations, communities and people to achieve their full potential. They do so by promoting their sustainable development and improving their quality of life. Technology should not be used for the opposite.

If we want people-centred, inclusive and development-oriented information societies, where all have access to digital technologies, where everyone can create, access, utilize and share information of their choice, legal frameworks need to be put in place to protect security and privacy in the digital age and to avoid potential large-scale intrusions and minimize abuses.

Author: Alexander De Croo is Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Development Cooperation, Belgium, and part of the 2015 intake of World Economic Forum Young Global Leaders 

Image: Three women are seen through a giant kaleidoscope as they look inside, as the exhibit is on display to demonstrate the geometric effect of filling space with equal triangles at the “Newton Park” interactive museum of science, during preparations for a performance for school children dedicated to the Russian Day of Science at the Museum Centre in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, February 4, 2015. REUTERS/Ilya Naymushin