Published on Arab Voices

Strengthening resilience in MENA through public sector digital transformation

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Two people conducting a transaction via mobile and digital app. Two people conducting a transaction via mobile and digital app.

Digital investments in government operations not only make them more efficient, but they also increase preparedness for emergencies, whether related to public health, climate, fragility, or trade. This was made clear during the COVID-19 pandemic. As noted in the recent World Bank 2022 report “GovTech Maturity Index (GTMI): Trends in Public Sector Digital Transformation,” which showcases countries’ overall advancement in digital transformation, the pandemic highlighted how much of a difference GovTech solutions can make during times of crisis and need.

In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, the investments that governments had made in digital infrastructure, platforms, and frameworks prior to the onset of the pandemic helped them to provide important early interventions, maintain continuity of service delivery, and support their most vulnerable people and businesses during times of crisis.

There are many examples of this from the region. In Jordan, the government had built a database through a World Bank project that ended in 2019 to improve the targeting of cash transfers to poor households. The creation of the database involved connecting the management information systems of six government agencies and more than two dozen different databases.  Creating the unified database required developing a data interoperability framework and setting up supportive institutional arrangements. Because this was already in place at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government was able to immediately identify households qualifying for emergency cash transfers. The National Aid Fund disbursed more than 380,000 cash payments in the first four months of the pandemic. Furthermore, the share of beneficiaries using mobile wallets to receive aid increased from 6% to 69%.

In Djibouti, the government had already been in the process of digitizing customs procedures prior to 2020. The impact of this investment was apparent with the share of customs declarations filed electronically increasing from 64% in 2019 to 93% in 2021. Because the government had already invested in digitizing customs procedures and the transition was already underway, the government was better able to reduce person-to-person contact during the pandemic.

The above examples show how useful a digitally-enabled public sector can be, especially at the onset of a crisis like the pandemic. As MENA governments work to advance digital government transformation and strengthen their resilience, here are five key points to consider going forward:

  1. Investing in equitable internet access is essential. Increased investment in digital infrastructure that provides equitable internet access should continue to be a priority.
  2. The GovTech “ecosystem” needs to be strengthened. Many countries have invested heavily in the “soft” infrastructure of digital transformation. This refers to the legislation, institutions, skills, and other intangible factors that make a coordinated digital intervention possible. But more work is needed on the implementation of policies and regulations, and to strengthen the capacity of institutions.
  3. Effective data privacy protections and enforcement are critical. Successful digital transformation requires both access to data and information as well as effective data privacy protections. In the emergency response phase of the pandemic, questions around what kind of data should be collected and how it should be used and safeguarded were at times subordinated to the perceived need to act quickly. While the latest GovTech Maturity Index shows that a majority of countries now have data protection laws and agencies in place, there is less traction on enforcement and on improving the performance of data protection authorities.
  4. Countries need effective mechanisms for cross-sector and cross-government collaboration. Using data and digital tools to inform policy responses and maintain service delivery in times of crisis requires coordinated approaches involving sectoral ministries, technical agencies, political leaders, the private sector, media, and civil society. Data interoperability frameworks allow for efficient cross-ministerial information sharing, while multistakeholder working groups can facilitate timelier responses to changing conditions on the ground.   
  5. The private sector can play a key role in public sector digital transformation. Experiences during the pandemic suggested that one effective public-private model includes a) government leadership around a clearly defined problem, and b) provision of a platform for collaboration among stakeholders to enable relatively quick deployment of practical solutions.

As was seen during the COVID-19 pandemic, investment in public sector digital transformation is a critical component of effective governing, adapting to the new normal, and being prepared for future crises. At the same time, the growing reliance on digital processes does create new vulnerabilities (for example, network outages) and cybersecurity risks that need to be mitigated.

Taking a broader view, as public sector digital capabilities become stronger, there is a chance that they could amplify rather than mitigate entrenched governance challenges. If MENA governments want to use GovTech to rebuild and strengthen the social contract, they will need to prioritize building a strong policy, legal, and regulatory framework to protect individuals’ rights and commit to GovTech principles around openness, inclusiveness, citizen engagement, and accountability.



Nadir Mohammed

Regional Director for Equitable Growth, Finance and Institutions (EFI) in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region

Jens Kromann Kristensen

Practice Manager, Governance, Middle East & North Africa, World Bank

Stephen Davenport

Global Lead, Anticorruption, Openness, and Transparency

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