Interview with His Excellency Nicolai Astrup, Minister of International Development of Norway

21 February 2019

It is not every day that one has the chance to meet a person like the Norwegian Minister of International Development, Nicolai Astrup. He belongs to one of the traditional shipping families in Norway; he is young, but retains the pioneering, forward-looking and innovative outlook of his ancestors. . The Norwegian Prime Minister, Erna Solberg picked the right man for this important position, because the Minister is a person who wishes to help as many as possible, with the means he has on his development budget.

We had a chance to meet him in Geneva, where he participated in the United Nations Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation. Despite his young age, he is one of 20 members appointed by Antonio Guterres, appointed in his personal capacity, representing a cross-section of expertise from government, industry, civil society, academia and the technical community. Ms. Melinda Gates, Co-Chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Mr. Jack Ma, Executive Chairman of Alibaba Group were appointed by the UN Secretary-General as Co-Chairs of the Panel. The Secretary-General asked the Panel to contribute to the broader public debate on the importance of cooperative and interdisciplinary approaches to ensure a safe and inclusive digital future for all taking into account relevant human rights norms. The panel is expected to identify policy, research and information gaps and make proposals to strengthen international cooperation in the digital space.

Q: You seem to be the youngest member of the Erna Solberg Government?

That’s not the case. I think I’m 7 years older than the youngest Minister. Historically there are others who have been far younger than me holding a ministerial position. I think the youngest one in the government is 33 years old.

Q: You are one of 20 members of the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel, appointed in your personal capacity. What are the prospects for global digital cooperation?

When I took up this (ministerial) post, it struck me that there is a huge potential in using digital tools, and that these would enable us to get better results out of our traditional development aid projects. In addition, it would enable countries to progress quicker on the development path than we did.

We have many individual, outstanding examples of technologies and innovations that have contributed to excellent results but we were lacking a strategic approach for the use of digital tools. Therefore, we elaborated a digital strategy for our development aid policy, which we launched last August. Now we are working on the elaboration of a report to the Norwegian parliament about digitalization in our development aid policy. I have spent a tremendous amount of time on this issue last year. So, the invitation to participate in this panel came in time and fits in well with the key issue – on how to modernize the development aid policy.

In our traditional development aid programmes, we have noticed that in those cases where we have used digital tools the outcome is better, and this has given us the possibility to reach out to a larger number of beneficiaries than in the past. I will give you a concrete example: Last year, I visited Malawi, and a project that has benefited from Norwegian financial assistance. 30,000 first and second grade pupils in school use digital learning material somewhere between 30 minutes to one hour a week, which we would say is close to nothing. Nevertheless, the result is amazing. 100 per cent improvement in literacy rates, and 60 per cent increase in mathematics in comparison with those who do not participate in the project. The parents of these pupils have access to these tools in the afternoons and evenings, and they learn to read and write. So, this is a project that has a double utility.

We have also financed an application called EFAU for Syria, which is designed for Syrian children who live in refugee camps and who do not have access to ordinary schooling as they should have had under normal conditions.

Another application we have financed is the MPESA Platform, which is a mobile phone banking service being used by more than 30 million Kenyans. This gives persons who have never had a bank account or a credit card to be part of the modern economy, both in terms of savings and investments.

We are progressing quickly. Telenor (the Norwegian Telecommunications Company) told me that on broadband coverage in Myanmar, they have achieved in 5 years what it took them 20 years to develop in Norway. It’s all about how fast we can realize the potential hidden here. These are the inputs I have put forward in this panel, and it’s called Digital Public Goods.

Q: What do you mean by digital public goods?

That’s technologies based upon open source, unlicensed technology that anybody can use and develop further. They are free, easily accessible for everybody – in other words, a common good.

A good example is a health information system with corresponding software, developed by the University of Oslo. The system is now being used in more than 100 countries, reaching out to 2.3 billion people.

Funnily enough, one of the countries not using it is Norway, but it is being used all over the world. It’s a system that gives information about health to the authorities, and gives them the opportunity to improve health services. India has built an ICT system for their population of 1.2 billion. It is based upon open source technology that everybody can use. For developing countries, this is something very positive. In many cases, they do not have the capacity or resources to develop their own system, but here they can take something already existing and adopt it to their local needs. This is happening in India, where with the assistance of the World Bank, they will export their system to Morocco. And this is only the beginning, and can turn into something like our health service system. So, you see there, is a tremendous potential out there. What we are now trying to do is to bring together both private companies and non-governmental actors to set up an accessible software platform. To arrive at this stage, we have in addition challenged UNICEF Venture, to set up a prototype of a digital public goods platform. If we succeed in this venture, I think this can really make a difference at the global level. We hope that the Panel will also consider it as their priority because the UN system by and large is a platform for independence. China, the U.S. and India have their own approaches on how the digital future will be, so this can be a common denominator platform, which will have a tremendous potential.

So, it is indeed very exciting to be present here and to participate in this development. I also think that the time has come to reflect upon how we can use each Norwegian Krone to get the most out of it, and that we can reach out to many more people.

A lot of exciting things are taking place. Let me just mention a new alliance between FAO, UNICEF, the World Food Programme, the United Nations, Microsoft, Amazon and Google using Big Data to predict famine, so that we will be able to come up with resources before disaster strikes, thereby save many human beings from a tragic death, and not the least reduce the cost at a time when international humanitarian funds do not cover the needs.

Q: All this is indeed very impressive.

Well there is a perspective, and there is a new approach to how we work, both in terms of development and finances. The Panel’s work covers global interests, whereas I would say that this might have the biggest impact for the poorest nations.

Q: What other work do you do in the field of Norwegian development aid?

One of the biggest challenges that we are facing is marine pollution and marine debris. Every year, 8 million tonnes of plastic waste go into the ocean. At the end of the day, something has to be done before it’s too late. We need clean oceans if we are going to be able to feed our future generations. We have therefore launched a new development project to clean the ocean. We will use 1.6 billon NOK (1 USD = 8.5 NOK) over a 4-year period. When we were looking for an organization to carry out this project, we did not find any so we took the initiative to set up a new fund under the auspices of the World Bank – the ProfBlue. Within 6 months we managed to set up the fund and get pledges of 1 billion NOK. We hope that the fund will contribute to private and public investments, in particular in waste management systems. Many countries do not have proper waste management systems and the result is that the pollution goes directly into the ocean. So that is another issue that we are working on. Of course, we do collaborate with the big polluting countries, and we will also establish collaboration with Africa. They do not pollute much today but with some of the rapid economic development taking place on the African continent, which is an excellent thing, they might be faced with the same problems as in India today.


Editor’s note

On 22 January, the day after his visit in Geneva, His Excellency was appointed the first Minister of Digitalisation , a very important position in our digital world. We here in Diva wish him lots of success all his endavours.