You don’t need to be rich to have a digital society

rich digital society

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Here at the e-Estonia Briefing Centre, we do everything to advise high-level delegations about how they can harness Estonian expertise to create their own digital society back home. As I discussed in my last article, people come here with their own preconceived notions about what makes some countries more successful than others in the area of digitalisation. In that article, I discussed whether a country’s size matters (spoiler alert: it doesn’t!) today, I want to show you that digitalisation is also not a matter of money.

To prove my point, I could just put my finger on the plethora of rich countries that have either not made any serious attempts at digitalisation or retreated after a bungled effort, but that’d be cheap and lazy. And we’re not cheap and lazy, you and I. So, let’s look at some countries with a relatively small GDP that grasped the opportunity and elevated themselves thanks to, at least in part, e-government projects.


On the 9th of October 2018, Benin’s Minister of Digital Economy signed an agreement with representatives from the Estonian e-Governance Academy for the implementation of governmental interoperability solutions as well as a national e-service portal for citizens to use. This agreement followed less than two years after the signing of the initial memorandum of understanding. Now, less than two years after the agreement about interoperability and the online portal was signed, check this out. Dozens of services, readily available online. Let’s be clear here: this is not just a pretty shop front with thousands of humans still sending faxes to process your data. This is a digital turnaround for an entire nation. How much did it cost? Excellent question, I’m glad you asked! Together, Estonian experts have developed the state portal, back office, and maintenance structures, assisted in creating the first 50 online services, and of course build capacities among the local population for €960,000. For a nation-wide IT project, that’s peanuts, but of course, it’s still quite a bit of money. Still, here we have a country with a per capita GDP of around €2,300 that took a leap of faith that will pay off massively over the coming years.


While Estonians are very tech-savvy and love to share their passion for digitalisation with anyone who will listen, it is also no secret that you can build a digital society on your own accord. One hour ahead of Benin, Rwanda is a fine example of a country that recovered from one of the greatest catastrophes of the 20th century to become what I would call the Estonia of Africa. The developments for a digital society started in the early 2010s and while there is definitely still some work to do, here we have yet another example of an online state portal where people can register for a driving test, transfer a land title (a critical issue in that neck of the woods!) or receive a certificate of succession. And all of this is possible in a country that has a per capita GDP of just over €700. As a result of these wise investments, the Rwandan capital of Kigali is now home to the Smart Africa Secretariat – which is now cooperating with Estonian experts to fight Covid-19. It’s a small world, isn’t it?


With an incredibly soothing symmetry, let’s move yet another hour ahead on the time zone map and talk about Ukraine. With a per capita GDP of around €2,800 but a rather large population at around 42m, Ukraine is often regarded as one of the dark horses that could turn around her fortunes if she plays all of her cards right. Estonian-Ukrainian cooperation in the area of digitalisation has been strong for some years now and with a charismatic newcomer at the helm, Ukrainians seem to have found their digital saviour in President Zelensky. Here at the Briefing Centre, we always emphasise that a digital society cannot be built in a day, and while there are still big projects to be tackled, the Ukrainian public sector is working at a positively breakneck pace. Their Trembita data exchange platform is very much inspired by the Estonian  X-Road and some aspects of what they call  “state in a smartphone” are already visible.

So what’s needed for digitalisation?

My job is to take apart every single excuse governments around the world make to avoid digitalising their structures. As I wrote previously, a country’s size is not important. With this article, I hope I was also able to prove to you that digitalisation is not a question of money either. It is, however, still a question of wealth. A wealth of ideas, determination, the desire to do better by your countrymen, and -women. A vision to bring your country forward. This is a responsibility that lies in the hands of all of us.


Today, e-governance and e-services have become a necessity in every country. e-Estonia Briefing Centre – the gateway to Estonian expertise in e-governance, invites you to connect with the Estonian IT companies directly responsible for the successful functioning of the e-state even during a pandemic. Get in touch with us to set up your custom virtual programme with the best partners you could get:

Written by
Florian Marcus

Digital Transformation Adviser at the e-Estonia Briefing Centre


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You will find us on the ground floor of Valukoja 8, at the central entrance behind the statue of Mr Ernst Julius Öpik. We will meet the delegation at the building’s reception. Kindly note that a booking is required to visit us.

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