Here’s a challenge. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the superpower rivalry, your country is newly independent. You have a relatively small population, compared to your neighbours. You have a challenging climate. But you are part of the regional body for co-operation and trade as well as a common currency.
No, the country isn’t Namibia, but Estonia. However, with a population of just 1.3 million and having gained independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991, there are many parallels between Namibia and Estonia.
What can a country do in such a situation? How can a small country make its mark on the global stage in a short period of time?
Whereas Namibia opted for a strategy of manufacturing, industrialisation and job creation, Estonia took a very different route, with a focus on ICT and the service industry, and is today regarded as one of the leading countries in the world when it comes to “e-government”.
As they saw it, with independence came a ‘blank slate’ for their new country and this was also a chance to introduce new laws and new policies.
Central to this is the ID card which, like Namibia, is a vital document for doing activities in the country. But, unlike Namibia, this ID card goes a lot further. It is, essentially, the only document that one needs. It’s a driver’s licence, it’s a travel document (within the EU), it’s a tax registration document (all tax is done online), it’s used for your medical services and your medication (e-prescriptions), and, finally, it’s a voting document (voting is also done online).
To enable these digital services the country has, like Namibia, embarked on a broad strategy of high speed connectivity (3G, 4G and widespread free Wi-Fi), with the ID number, and ‘digital password’, as a key element.
But, unlike Namibia, all state institutions have access (on various levels) to this information. So getting a library card, registering a child for school or university, travelling across borders, etc. is all done without any paperwork.
Your address is known, your birthdate is known, so why does one have to complete that same information when registering at, say, the City of Windhoek, ErongoRed, NaTIS, Immigration, etc.?
And for those worried about privacy, every citizen also has access to that information and can see, for example, which state body (tax office, police, municipality, etc.) accessed your information and on what date and time.
The savings are immense. When I asked the conference organisers for a programme I received a fairly blank stare – “We don’t have printed programmes – everything you need is online.” Although a land of forests, the environment is therefore wisely maintained. There are also time savings for citizens – dozens of hours saved each month by not having to drive to an office, queue, fill up paper forms, file tax forms, etc.
And even the government has changed. Whereas, in Namibia, many parliamentarians proudly clutch their iPad devices, in Estonia they are actually used to conduct daily business with on-line cabinet meetings. The result is that the average length of a cabinet meeting was cut from five hours to just 30 minutes. Not only can ministers take part in the meeting remotely, but the government has also eliminated the need to print and deliver thousands of pages of documents each week.
There are other advantages too. The cross-border trade has been streamlined through electronic forms and electronic checking at borders. Estonia is now rated as one of the leading countries in the world for cross-border efficiency. Compare that to Namibia and SADC, where, as one presenter at the recent Namibian Manufacturers Awards claimed, the average speed for transport (taking into account the hold-ups at the borders for goods clearance and customs checks) is between 6 and 12 km/hr (rail is even slower).
Finally, Estonia has now introduced what they call their ‘secret weapon’ – the concept of e-residency of their country. This means that a Namibian, for example, can register a business in Estonia and trade, using the benefits of the Eurozone, throughout the EU while being registered as an Estonian ‘e-resident’. They will even be granted an ID card, similar to that used by all Estonians, allowing them many of the benefits that full citizens enjoy. By May 2016, 10 000 people across the world had become ‘e-residents’ of Estonia.
To introduce all of these innovations was a challenge. There was, for instance, the ‘conservative logic’ (the human mind blocking the changes), fear of introducing new systems and an inherent human love of the tangible such as paper records.
But Estonia has achieved the goals they set themselves in 1991. They have the cleanest air in the world, are ranked number two in the world for internet freedom and 98% of tax is paid online. With political will and drive, it can be done.
*Robin Tyson is lecturer in Media Studies at the University of Namibia and was part of a group of media lecturers and journalists who visited Estonia recently for a conference on ‘When media realities and media teaching meet’.