USAID’s First Digital Strategy Seeks to Counter Digital Authoritarianism

While the spread of COVID-19 overshadowed the launch of the first digital strategy from the US Agency for International Development (USAID) in early April, the pandemic has also highlighted its significance by calling attention to the importance of access to digital technology and accelerating the global trend towards increased reliance on digital systems.

With government-imposed lockdowns and social distance measures in place across much of the world, those who can digitally connect to information and services benefit, while those without access to the internet—3.7 billion people worldwide, roughly 57 percent of whom live in low- and lower-middle-income countries—face additional hardship. Similarly, as the crisis has upended interactions in the physical world, governments and companies able to provide services digitally have proven more effective and viable than those unable to do so.

In that sense, the publication of USAID’s first digital development strategy is well timed. Although the organization has supported a variety of digital initiatives over the past two decades, including as an early supporter of digital finance, the strategy marks its first attempt to outline a comprehensive and cohesive approach to digital development aligned with its broader strategic aim of supporting countries in their “Journey to Self-Reliance.”

The strategy also aligns with the Trump administration’s broader National Security Strategy aim of promoting “an open, interoperable, reliable, and secure Internet” to counter China’s efforts to export a model of internet governance that helps national governments to conduct surveillance and stifle dissent. USAID intends to confront this threat by promoting digital initiatives that “enhance security and economic prosperity, consistent with the American values of respect for individual rights, freedom of expression, and the promotion of democratic norms and practices.”

Below we review USAID’s digital strategy first in terms of what it means for the organization’s approach to development going forward and second how effective the strategy is likely to be in promoting open and inclusive digital ecosystems as an alternative to more authoritarian models. We argue that USAID’s efforts in this area will be handicapped by two factors out of its control: (1) the lack of a holistic data protection framework in the United States, and (2) China’s dominant role providing telecom hardware in lower-income countries.

The role of digital development in achieving self-reliance

In 2018, USAID reoriented its practices around empowering countries to help them become self-reliant, which it defines as the “ability of a country to plan, finance, and implement solutions to solve its own development challenges.” The agency’s decision to publish its first digital strategy is based on the belief that achieving self-reliance in the digital age requires “open, inclusive, and secure digital ecosystems that preserve and protect the rights and agency of individuals.”

The strategy is organized around two objectives: (1) improving measurable development and humanitarian-assistance outcomes through the responsible use of digital technology in its programming; and (2) strengthening the openness, security, and inclusiveness of national digital ecosystems.

To achieve the first objective, USAID will shift to a “digital by default” stance for all programmatic activities (including payments, data collection, and procurement) unless going digital “does not clearly offer an advantage, or when the risks introduced by digital are too great.” USAID will also incorporate the Principles for Digital Development, which outlines nine areas of best practice, in the application of digital technologies to global development into the design, procurement, and implementation of its contract awards and strengthen the digital expertise of its staff by integrating digital skills across its workforce, establishing an executive fellowship program in digital development, and creating new positions dedicated to building internal expertise on digital ecosystems.

To accomplish the second objective, USAID will rely on country-level digital ecosystem assessments to guide investments that “help foster robust digital ecosystems by strengthening local capacity, promoting policy reform, catalyzing the market…and mitigating risks that hinder sustainable investment.” Recognizing the inefficiency created when donors invest in siloed digital systems for different sectoral programs, the strategy emphasizes the importance of investing in non-rivalrous “digital global goods” that underpin open and interoperable digital systems, such as “standards, frameworks, software tools, digital systems, and conceptual approaches with broad utility across development sectors.”

The strategy also articulates the risks that increased reliance on digital systems poses and how USAID will seek to counter them. From a development perspective, the most critical of these is the divide between those who have access to online tools and those who do not. This digital divide mirrors preexisting inequalities, with the poor, elderly, and rurally located less likely to be connected. Women also have less access than men, especially in low-income countries. The danger is that these already disadvantaged groups will fall even further behind. As the strategy notes, “closing these divides wherever they exist is key to achieving USAID’s goals.”

Opposing digital authoritarianism (and why it won’t be easy)

A key element of USAID’s goal of supporting open and inclusive digital ecosystems is limiting the spread of digital authoritarianism, which the strategy defines as “the use of digital information technology by authoritarian regimes to surveil, repress, and manipulate domestic and foreign populations.” Although the strategy does not mention China by name, it implicates the country’s well-reported practice of exporting its model of internet governance to countries eager to strengthen surveillance and suppress the flow of information.

The best way to limit the appeal of China’s model is to address the risks that a more free and open internet presents, including those related to protecting personal data. In some ways, USAID is well-positioned to take on this challenge, as the first major development organization to publish a framework for using data responsibly and one of the lead drafters of the Principles for Digital Development.

But USAID is also handicapped by the lack of a holistic data protection framework in the United States. The absence of such a framework—and the associated perception that US tech firms can use the data they collect in ways that may harm consumers without fear of penalty—makes it harder for USAID (or any US agency) to make the case that the open model of internet governance it promotes will adequately protect people and communities from harms caused by the misuse of data.

This tension is most apparent when the strategy sets “fostering the adoption of globally recognized standards” as a guiding practice. While USAID (rightly) argues that “such standards and practices can increase investment in, and the growth of, local, digital ecosystems and improve the quality of services available to communities,” it does not discuss the benefits that more harmonized data protection standards could provide, nor does it mention the role of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation in setting a standard that many countries have sought to emulate.

A second handicap out of USAID’s control is the dominance of Chinese tech firms, particularly Huawei, in providing the network hardware that underlies the internet in a growing number of lower income countries. For example, China invested $3.5 billion in telecom construction in sub-Saharan Africa from 2013 to 2019, according to the American Enterprise Institute’s China Global Investment Tracker. As Eric Olander, co-founder of The China Africa Project, notes, the US government has not collaborated with US firms to offer countries an alternative path.

The extent to which countries that rely on Chinese telecom hardware are more likely to embrace a Chinese model of internet governance is unclear. But there is evidence to suggest that the two are often packaged together. For example, Huawei employees helped government authorities in Uganda and Zambia spy on political opponents by intercepting communications, infiltrating computers, and deploying location-tracking applications. Huawei has also sold its “safe city solution,” which uses facial and license-plate recognition, social media monitoring, and other surveillance capabilities to monitor people’s activities, to at least 12 African countries, according to analysis by Jonathan E. Hillman and Maesea McCalpin.

These developments point to the fact that digital systems are just as much tools for foreign policy and political influence as they are for innovation and economic growth (a reality well-captured by the term “digitalpolitik”). This suggests that successfully promoting an open internet model abroad will require a more comprehensive approach than the US government has taken to date.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.