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Q&A with Boutheina Guermazi

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Q. Describe your typical working day

A. My typical working day starts with coffee and a nice early morning walk with my dog Ziggy. I usually go through my schedule for the day on my phone and start responding to quick email requests.

Then it gets busy with a series of back-to-back virtual meetings with staff and partners. I always try to free-up a couple of hours during the day to read the latest development in my sector and have a break with my family. At the end of the day, when interruptions are limited, I usually focus on substantive work that requires strategic thinking and decision-making to make sure my list of priorities keeps moving.

Q. What’s the best thing about working at the World Bank?

A. If you are passionate about development, the World Bank is one of the best places to work. What I like about it is the results-driven mindset and the focus on our twin goals of eradicating extreme poverty and reaching shared posterity putting people at the centre of the agenda. Our instruments from policy advice to investment lending, analytical work and policy-based financing offer great tools to support economic and social development.

The Bank is also quite agile to respond to crises. I am very proud with the Bank’s response to COVID, unlocking $6 billion to support emergency response operations that reached over 100 countries. Another $12 billion has been made available to support the acquisition and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines in developing countries.

Some of these emergency responses include digital components, especially actions that support access to connectivity and digital public services (e.g. emergency digital cash transfers to vulnerable groups, deployment of distance learning or telehealth capabilities).

Q. How has the Covid-19 pandemic been for you personally? What have you found most challenging?

A. I am obviously a big advocate for digital transformation, and I think the pandemic made us all more tech-savvy in a world that leapfrogged in its digitalisation journey. Many would agree that there is great value in avoiding daily commuting or formal dress codes and spending more time with family working from home.

Having said that, I miss in-person meetings and more spontaneous interactions that take place in the physical world as well as the face to face interaction with our Government representatives. I also miss the social events with my team. We tried many virtual hangout formats and it was a lot of fun, but we still can’t share a nice potluck virtually.

On the work front, the main challenge has been to run a marathon at full speed in order not to miss any opportunity to support countries in need during the crisis.And to build strategic partnerships to advance the digital agenda on key issues such as the digital divide. To be successful at this, you need to make sure your team has all it needs to deliver, and I am very proud of the work that has been achieved over the past few months.

Q. Has the pandemic resulted in a re-think in the way the World Bank supports the digital agenda?

A. Digital has been an important element for societal resilience during COVID-19 and will clearly be an integral part of how we think about building back better. We have adapted our work program in Digital Development to address the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. Including through more advisory and financing support as well as analytical work focusing on the role of digital technologies in areas such as vaccine delivery.

We are also integrating an analysis of COVID-19 into our digital economy country assessment framework. The International Finance Corporate (IFC) has also provided direct support to private sector clients in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, it has provided a loan to West Indian Ocean Cable Company (WIOCC), to help the Company address financing shortages due to delayed revenues from its retail broadband clients.

Beside the sense of emergency, another reason why we managed to quickly adapt is the fact that we could rely on a pre-established holistic ecosystem approach that was fully actionable during the crisis. This approach brings in all the WBG expertise and instruments to cover five foundation elements: digital infrastructure, digital platforms, digital financial services, digital business, and digital skills.

It covers policy and regulatory reforms across the different pillars. Our approach considers cross-cutting matters including data, cybersecurity, and digital inclusion across the different foundations. It also covers use cases focusing on mainstreaming digital applications in different priority sectors of Bank engagement.

Q. Given the recognition by the World Bank that the fight against climate change is at the heart of the development priorities, how are you bridging the digital transformation agenda with the green agenda?

A. There is no doubt that the digital agenda must be guided by the green agenda, including through prioritising digital applications such as precision agriculture and smart grids that offer more efficient and sustainable ways to manage natural resources.

Our holistic and comprehensive approach to digital transformation must put people and the planet at the centre to address critical questions: How to help the ICT sector reach net-zero carbon emission goals? How to make sure digital technologies are fully leveraged in all sectors to support a green transition?

We recently launched a dedicated knowledge work-stream on this issue, involving academia, private sector, NGOs, and policymakers to come up with a detailed roadmap to be released in 2022.

Q. In its latest World Development Report (Data for Better Lives, 2021), the World Bank is calling for a new social contract for data. Can you tell us more?

A. The WDR on Data for Better Lives highlights three pathways for improving development outcomes through data. First, data analytics and processing that can provide greater accountability. Second, data as a critical instrument to support evidence-based policymaking. Third, data as a driver of a new growth paradigm for the economy, with increased business opportunities for private sector.

Of course, great opportunities come with significant risks, from online criminal activities to the use of data for political surveillance or discrimination and other economic risks related to data-driven business models. Hence why this balancing act between opportunities and risks calls for a new social contract on data around three pillars: (i) understanding and harnessing the full value of data to unleash its potential for different purposes; (ii) building a trust environment for data, where rights and interest all stakeholders have in data is safeguarded; and (iii) making sure every stakeholder has a fair share in the benefits of data through investments and policies.

Aligning data governance with the social contract would require investments and regulatory efforts at the national and global levels, from expanding broadband access to all, to establishing interoperable and solid standards and cybersecurity, data protection, intellectual property, open data, and e-commerce. This also implies cross-border cooperation to address emerging issues on competition, trade, and taxation.

Q. The evidence suggests that data costs are still a significant barrier to digital participation in many countries. Is this largely down to lack of infrastructure? What else can countries do to reduce costs of data?

A. If broadband infrastructure is available but unaffordable, then we fall into a situation where broadband deepens existing inequalities of opportunities based on income-level. High Internet prices will exclude the Digital Poor, who will either miss the opportunities of the digital economy or reduce their participation to what they consider as strictly necessary in order to limit their data plan bill…

As your question suggests, it is important to look at the different components of the digital value chain to identify bottlenecks for affordability, and this should include elements related to the regulatory environment and competition policies such as licensing, access to spectrum, and portability. At the same time, it is as important to also look at the demand-side issues to promote digital inclusion programs that target affordability issues and offer alternatives in some instances (e.g. public access solutions).

Beside data, an emerging challenge is the affordability of devices that are often way too expensive for the poorest, and impact the most disadvantaged people including women, minorities, and people with disabilities. Device ownership is an area that requires out-of-the-box solutions, closely designed with private sector, from low-cost smartphones manufacturing to the development of interest-free loans programs with local financial institutions.

Q. Could you share a couple of recent digital projects you’ve supported?

A. At the World Bank, our financing and analytical support is articulated around an ecosystem approach targeting foundation pillars, including; digital connectivity, digital financial services, digital public platforms, digital businesses, and digital skills. For instance, in Georgia, we mobilised 40 million USD to support a project that will help connect to 1,000 villages, including settlements in mountainous regions.

In Niger, we mobilised $100 million USD to support an ambitious program that will provide enhanced connectivity, digital skills, and services to 1,240,000 people (most of whom are farmers) in over 2,000 selected villages.

In this latest interview, we speak to Boutheina Guermazi, Director of Digital Development Global Practice at World Bank.

Q & A
Boutheina Guermazi Boutheina Guermazi Director, Digital Development, Infrastructure Practice Group, The World Bank
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