Maldives is an Island Nation known for its azure seas, coral reefs and idyllic palm-fringed beaches. A nation of just 400,000 citizens, the archipelago of the Maldives stretches across 26 atolls and an extraordinary 115 square miles. Yet the country is also quickly turning into one of Asia’s economic success stories. The tourism sector is booming. Arrivals from the UK – for instance – surged a massive 18.7 percent last month when compared with December 2016. Equally astounding is the pace and delivery of major infrastructure projects such as the new Velana International Airport, the friendship bridge (linking the capital Malé with the new Airport and Hulhumalé Island), and the Hulhumalé land reclamation project – a city rising from the ocean that will drastically improve living conditions and housing supply for the densely-populated capital. The current government of President Abdulla Yameen has economic growth and development at the heart of its agenda. Few could argue with their impressive record of delivery.
With the wind in its sails, the Maldives Government is now turning to technological solutions to ensure its citizens feel connected and safe. Firstly that comes in the form of governance. Too often government expenditure is shrouded in a cloak of bureaucracy and red tape. But recently the Finance Ministry of the Maldives opened up the nation’s books to its people through an innovative digital app and website.
The app accompanied the release of the state budget and brought new levels of accessibility and transparency to public expenditure. It allows users to swipe effortlessly between revenue, expenditure, financing and budget tables, all with detailed breakdowns and colour charts to illustrate the data. It also outlines government objectives, the economic and fiscal policy outlook, and the Public Sector Investment Program.
User friendly and wonderfully visual, in the geographically dispersed islands of the Maldives, the government is clearly utilising technology to reach citizens in new ways. The Finance Ministry say it is part of a drive to deepen participation and enhance public understanding of the Yameen administration’s work.
As a developing economy, the Maldives has leapfrogged its wealthier, larger friends in the international community by opening up its books to the public. In fact, the Maldives sits amongst a group of countries – including Estonia and South Korea – that are using digital technologies to enhance democratic participation in this way.
The Finance Minister Ahmed Munawar has championed the move. “Democracy is about more than elections: it is about participation. This is enhanced when citizens are well informed,” he said. “Technology – particularly with the difficulties posed by the Maldives’ remote island geography – is a natural way to deepen engagement with the electorate. With better accessibility to information, Maldivian citizens now have greater transparency over government finances.”
The government clearly saw the project as the crucial first step in ensuring it is held it to account in the way it spends Maldivian taxes. Rather than solely rely on the traditional and inaccessible press conference, the turn to technology demonstrates the forward-looking stance of the government.
“We wanted the fully-costed budget to have the widest reach”, the Finance Minister said. “This year’s spending plan is the most ambitious yet. It builds on the growth that the government has delivered year on year. This administration was voted in to raise living standards. All citizens should therefore know how we plan to continue doing so.”
The Maldives Government is looking to tech innovation not only to make its citizens feel more included, but safer. Late last year its Immigration Service, in partnership with Germany’ largest Biometric company, Dermalog, introduced a pioneering new biometric citizen ID card.
The ‘Passport Card’ is more than just a passport. Yes, it’s a passport used for international travel and ID verification. But it is also a driver’s license, an insurance document, a health card, and, remarkably, even a payment card. The Immigration Service and Dermalog have teamed up with Mastercard to offer dual-interface chips supporting contactless card reading. Made of hi-grade, durable polycarbonate, they promise the card will last for over a decade.
In a world where increased international security and the threat of terrorism and transnational criminal networks has never been greater, the card has one more trick up its sleeve: it contains biometric data in the form of ten fingerprints per user. This means compatibility with biometric screening systems at border checkpoints around the world.
Crucially, the Maldives Government does not want to be viewed as simple adapters of technology, but innovators and thought-leaders. The Maldives Immigration Controller General Mohamed Anwar highlighted this ambition: “The door is open for many other government departments and private companies to use our new Passport Card in future.” That a remote island nation wants to lead the technological response to international border control is a bold and admirable ambition.
The drive to digitise this young nation shows no sign of slowing. This month the Education Ministry purchased 71,000 tablets for Maldivian schools, as part of an $8.9 million scheme. A training programme in advance of the delivery of the hardware, for both students and teachers, was already set in motion last year.
The Maldives Government’s plans for putting IT at the centre of development has now also landed on the island Hulhumalé. Previously known as the island that houses the country’s principal airport, it is now home to the Maldives’ first ‘smart city’. It is being built on a smart grid that includes a fiber optic network and a Smart Traffic Management System, promising efficient public transport.
As a nation synonymous with international tourism, it is easy to forget about the almost half a million people that call the Maldives home. Their nation is now classified as Upper Middle Income by the World Bank and is one of only two South Asia countries rated ‘high’ on the Human Development Index. But as one of the most geographically dispersed nations on earth, it is not easy to govern, nor communicate. That the country is looking to lead the way in technological innovation to bring openness, transparency and security should be applauded. It proves you don’t have to be the biggest on the global stage to make an impact.