With only 1.3 million people and a third of the area of North Carolina, Estonia may not be the first country that comes to mind as a leader in the tech revolution.

But while more than 50 percent of the small Baltic country is covered by forest, nearly 100 percent is covered by wireless Internet, said the country’s prime minister, Taavi Roivas. Currently the youngest government leader in the European Union, Roivas underscored the need for advanced technology for good governance in his speech at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy on Wednesday, March 23.

“As government, we need to experiment, we need to innovate, we need to take risks,” he said.

Since 2000, Estonia has developed an “e-government” that allows citizens to sign official documents, register businesses, and even vote online. The idea behind the focus on technology, he said, is to give citizens back their time.

“People don’t want to spend their time filling out forms or standing in lines to communicate with their government,” he said. “Our strategy is to make interacting with the government as easy and hassle-free as possible.”

By signing every document digitally, including all legislation, the country saves 2 percent of its GDP every year. This is enough, Roivas said, to cover the country’s entire defense budget.

Thanks to these online government services, it takes an average of three minutes to file income taxes and as little as 80 minutes to register a new business. In the 2005 parliamentary elections, nearly a third of the population cast their votes online. Roivas was quick to point out, however, that some transactions can’t be done with the click of a mouse.

“The two riskiest transactions are buying real estate and getting married,” he said. “In these cases, even in Estonia you need to show up.”   

Easy access to online government services, combined with a spirit of innovation, has made Estonia Europe’s leader in startups per capita. Skype, which was created by four people in Estonia, has since grown into an $8.5 billion company.

In 1991, when Estonia regained its independence from the Soviet Union, its living standards measured in GDP per capita were 17 times less than that of its neighbor, Finland. Today it’s only two times less, and the gap continues to narrow. Over the last 20 years, Estonia’s economy has grown 7.5 times.

In addition to technology, Roivas attributes this progress to the country’s fiscal prudence, good business climate, and emphasis on building partnerships to promote security and trade.

“Our foreign policy narrative is ‘Never again alone,’” he said. “It’s very important to have strong allies, strong friends, and our foreign policy is aimed at creating these friendships.”

He said the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP), currently in negotiation between the U.S. and the European Union, would be a positive step toward boosting economic growth and building a stronger alliance with the U.S.

“We actually are a European version of the American dream, a country where everything is possible.”

The talk was organized by the Duke University Program in American Grand Strategy and co-sponsored by the Duke Center for International Development (DCID), the Department of Political Science, and the Triangle Institute for Security Studies.

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