In Ukraine, USAID Created a Blueprint for Digital Citizenship. Now They’re Exporting It
The value of a USAID investment comes into sharp focus as Putin attempts to “win an information war in the Global South,” Samantha Power says.
As Ukrainian troops took to the field in the early days of the Russian invasion, a different sort of reinforcement force assembled in Ukraine’s basements and bomb shelters. Their mission: to ensure Ukraine’s digital citizenship app was up and running, able to accommodate panicked Ukrainians as they fled the country or joined the front lines.
It wasn’t easy or straightforward, USAID Administrator Samantha Power told a crowd of Ukraine supporters in Washington on Tuesday. During the Ukrainian winter, a lone official with the U.S. Agency for International Development, warmed only by a small gas-station generator, worked to get contracts out to coders. Members of the Eurasia Foundation, who were collaborating with USAID to create the Diia app, crowded into a Kyiv air raid shelter to continue work as sirens blared overhead.
“When the Russian army cut off the internet in occupied territories, [Ukraine’s] Ministry of Digital Transformation organized telecom teams and traveled with them through the wreckage in bulletproof vests and helmets to repair damaged base stations and fiber-optic cables and to restore internet access,” Power said.
The result of all of that effort was difficult to see outside Ukraine. And that was largely the point. Thanks to the Diia app and the team behind it, millions of Ukrainans were able to maintain some semblance of normalcy: to pay taxes, seek financial assistance, report damage to their homes, and more, even as Russia tried to obliterate them. Now, USAID is looking to bring some version of Diia to Colombia, Kosovo, and Zambia “for starters,” Power said.
Diia has some 19 million users around the world and allows Ukrainians to do everything from register a business to report on the location of Russian soldiers. Power said it also provides a model for the way digital citizenship and interaction with the government could work in the future, and how to make such online portals secure.
“We've been working with the Ukrainian government since 2014 on cyber protections” for the services behind Diia, she said. Unlike the way many U.S. tech companies develop apps—creating a service first and then figuring out how to add security later (if ever)—the Ukrainian government knew it had to bring a security-first approach or no one would trust it. The app itself saves and holds no data, so there is nothing to hack. Instead, it interacts with registrants and data saved in enterprise clouds that are all safely located outside of the country, where Russian missiles can’t get to them.
As Power said, the app was not just essential to keeping the Ukrainian economy going, it also helped reassure Western partners like the United States that Ukraine could be trusted with aid.
“I don't know if we could have gotten that money out of Congress if not for Diia. Because what Diia allows us to do is [show] that direct budget support goes, yes, to the Ukrainian government, but then it goes to pay teachers, to pay healthcare workers, to pay first responders, and there's a digital trail. It's not, you know, some official deciding this or that. It actually is going directly into the bank accounts in a manner that just would have been untraceable in a prior regime.”
Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s Minister of Digital Transformation, described how data entered into the app by citizens, such as information about damaged areas, allows the Ukrainian government to predict the size of a potential bribe from a contractor to the government based on the area and size of the project.
“What we are focused on right now…is to remove the role of a human agency in those services where corruption risks are the highest,” Fedorov said.
In a video accompanying the presentation, Fedorov laid out a utopian picture of a Ukraine transformed via Diia by 2030, a country whole and at peace—and which has become a magnet for business and technology startups due to highly streamlined bureaucracy.
“Ukraine now has the most affordable e-residency,” the presentation said, describing the future. “Ukraine ranks first in the world by the number of startups per capita. Ukrainian courts are guided by artificial intelligence and all notarial acts take place online. Ukrainian customs is fully automatic and the fastest in the world. Customs clearance and car registration can now be done in three clicks from your smartphone. Because of war and internal migration, we have built…flexible modern digital education. Brave military and civilians get quality treatment with modern remote monitoring and e-health systems.”
Whether that vision of Ukraine is realistic depends on factors well beyond online access to government services. But for the United States, the picture alone has value, which is part of why USAID now wants to replicate it elsewhere.
“This is now something that other countries can look to…at a time when Putin is trying to win an information war in the Global South,” Power said. “For Ukraine to be also highlighting this aspect of what Ukraine does, mainly a democratic aspect, a crowd-sourced aspect and aspects focused on anti-corruption, it’s also a very important message as well as a very important tool.”