Remarks by Angel Gurría
11 June 2020 - Paris, OECD
(As prepared for delivery)
Excellencies, Dear Colleagues,
I am pleased to be joining you today from Paris for this High-level Debate on the Impact of Rapid Technological Change. I would like to thank the President of the General Assembly, His Excellency Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, for convening this important meeting.
The format of today’s discussion bears witness to the rapid changes imposed upon us by the global coronavirus pandemic. In fact, Mr President: it was only six months ago that I had the privilege of welcoming you to Paris in person for a meeting of the OECD Council. Now, crucial meetings in international fora such as the UN and the OECD are being conducted almost entirely, and indeed successfully, online.
Over the past few months, digital tools have helped many economies and societies avoid a complete standstill, as billions of people have been asked to work or study from home to reduce the spread of the virus.
Despite this rapid progress, this crisis risks exacerbating vulnerabilities and inequalities within and between our societies – the very challenges that the SDGs are seeking to address. And I am acutely aware that the digital divide is also global – for many, access to electricity remains the first stumbling block.
Take, for example, telemedicine services, which have skyrocketed in many countries since the beginning of the crisis, allowing patients to receive medical advice from the safety of their homes while limiting exposure for healthcare workers.
But, for many millions of people these services remain out of reach if they do not have a computer or smartphone; if electricity and internet connectivity are unreliable or inexistent; if their healthcare provider lacks the necessary infrastructure; or indeed if they don’t have a healthcare provider at all. There are also parallels to be drawn when it comes to the delivery of education, for example.
I believe the current crisis provides us with an opportunity though. An opportunity to prepare for a digitally-enabled recovery. An opportunity to address the inclusiveness and resilience of our economies, and to put people’s well-being at the core of all of our efforts.
Two weeks ago, I addressed the summit on COVID financing convened by the UN Secretary-General and the Prime Ministers of Canada and Jamaica. There, I outlined how the global recovery must address domestic resource mobilisation. Digital technologies are already proving invaluable in the fight against tax evasion – governments are already sharing information on 50 million bank accounts electronically, for example. The next frontier is about addressing the taxation of digital goods and services, recognising that conventional notions of place and space no longer apply. And, of course, ensuring that developing countries reap the benefits of all of these exciting developments.
Beyond the specific issue of tax, we are working across the board to help governments around the world make sure that their policies are fit for the present – and the future. There are several entry points for this work, which we call “Going Digital” at the OECD:
First, we need to improve connectivity. There has never been a better moment to close the digital divide. Again, I am very conscious that for many, this means starting with electricity.
Second, we need to look at data access and sharing, both within and across borders. Data flows, pooling and interoperability have been essential in dealing with the health emergency. They are also at the heart of many other new opportunities in the digital economy. In all of this, we will need to address the issues of data protection and privacy.
Third, human-centric Artificial intelligence. AI is playing a key role in every aspect of the crisis response: from detecting and diagnosing the virus, to supporting the search for a vaccine, to monitoring the recovery and improving early warning tools. Last year, we launched the OECD Principles on AI to help ensure that AI respects the rule of law, human rights, democratic values and diversity. [My Deputy, Ulrik Knudsen, presented the AI Principles in New York last autumn, and underscored our commitment to working with all interested countries on this issue].
Fourth, digital technologies for sustainability. I have always said that we need to put a big fat tax on carbon. Today, I believe we can also build on the changes brought about by the crisis – such as teleworking, teleconferencing and digital business models – to help curb emissions further.
And fifth, strengthening the capabilities of firms and workers to draw widespread benefits from digital technologies. Small firms still lag behind large firms when it comes to use of e-commerce, for example, and more needs to be done to ensure that the transition doesn’t only benefit a few leading firms or the most digitally-enabled workers in the most digitally-enabled countries.
Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Our discussions today provide an important opportunity to focus on the technological solutions that will help us to tackle the COVID-19 crisis and to achieve the SDGs. The SDGs are, after all, our shared framework for a fair, green and robust recovery. You can count on the OECD’s full support as you work to achieve them. Thank you.