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Digital Democracies are Better Prepared for National Challenges

Without the infrastructure to comply with public health guidelines and provide needed services, governments fail to meet the needs of citizens. By following the example of countries with strong digital capabilities, including Estonia, the International Republican Institute (IRI) has ramped up its efforts to fill the digital gap in Latin America and the Caribbean. With the support of IRI, more countries throughout the Western Hemisphere are making their governance smarter and more receptive to citizen demands, even as a once in a century pandemic continues to ravage the region.

When used intelligently, technology can bring enormous benefits for the good of a nation. This has become more evident as the world has been forced to confront the hardships of COVID-19. Emerging technologies have facilitated society’s ability to continue working, studying and ultimately, living. Digitally capable governments have contributed to the public sector's agility and capacity to react and adapt to unprecedented scenarios.

This is not new. Most countries around the world understand that technology is a tool used to improve efficiency and cultivate stronger democratic processes. They have adapted to changes by digitizing administrative procedures and, in some cases, implementing electronic voting. One of the most representative cases is Estonia. With 99 percent of government services digitized, it stands as the most digital country in the world. This drastic change did not happen overnight. The country has been working steadily toward this goal since the 1990s by fostering a strong digital culture among citizens which has resulted in 98 percent of the population having a digital ID to procure online services.

The digital gap between countries such as Estonia and those in Latin America and the Caribbean are still quite vast. Consequently, over the past several years IRI has worked with countries across the region to implement Smart Governance initiatives. The objective: to ensure the digital revolution adequately supports democracy and its principles. In El Salvador, for example, open data and crowdsourcing solutions helped generate reliable public safety networks. A platform was specifically designed and adapted for the City of Antiguo Cuscatlán to address public safety challenges and ensure buy-in between the government and its citizens.

Similarly, in Guatemala, IRI shared best practices and lessons learned with journalists to help them search, document and report on public spending projects. Citizens seek a direct link to institutions that govern them, demanding more transparency and accountability. Digitalization facilitates this process, contributing to the resolution of problems and equitable distribution of information flow in the public interest. This process not only cultivates stronger democracies but expands states' responsiveness to citizens.

It is therefore imperative that governments, politicians and journalists are equipped with the technological tools and skills necessary to strengthen their relationships with citizens as a means to boost accountability. State institutions and civil society must be prepared to recognize disinformation and to adequately defend themselves against digital threats to democracy. Civil society is demanding governments promote and implement technological tools, especially in the wake of recent democratic elections in El Salvador, Ecuador (first round) and Bolivia, as well as those taking place in Peru, Chile and Argentina.

Digital democracies are seen as more helpful and allied to democratic policy agendas. Nations across the region are at a pivotal moment to carry out digital reforms. If the pandemic has resulted in anything positive, it is the pressure that has been exerted on governments to digitize their processes and citizens to learn and master emerging technology. Digitally prepared governments and informed citizens fosters more developed, responsible and committed nations.