Digital technology is receiving increasing attention in international dialogues on global prosperity and stability. In August 2021, the digital ministers of the G-20 identified ways in which digitization can improve the ability of the economy and government to contribute to a “resilient, strong, sustainable and inclusive recovery” after COVID-19. In May 2022, the Indonesian government, as part of its presidency of this year’s G-20, cheered the G-20 Digital Economy Working Group prioritize digital connectivity, digital skills and literacy and cross-border data flows. Meanwhile, for this year’s upcoming G7 Summit at Schloss Elmau, the German presidency proposed that the goal of “stronger together” should give priority to “social justice, equality and inclusive digitalization”.
At best, digital technologies are contributing to huge improvements in access to public services, the provision of social protection and economic opportunities for millions of people. However, profound questions are raised. Some of these focus on corporate control and ownership of digital infrastructure and platforms. Large private companies own and operate many of the world’s underlying digital systems, with tremendous influence over the users of the technologies and potentially even the governments mandated to regulate them. Others focus on how digital technologies have opened the door to new forms of government surveillance, empowered autocrats with repressive digital tools, exacerbated inequalities and encouraged social divisions through the spread of disinformation.
In response, a growing international movement is emphasizing the public dimension of digital technologies. In a recent worksheet, we explore how digital public technology (DPT) could help accelerate progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with an emphasis on extreme deprivation and basic needs. By DPT we mean digital assets that create a level playing field for wide access or use, by virtue of whether they are publicly owned, publicly regulated or open source. A striking example is India’s Aadhaar platform, which provides personal identification to more than a billion citizens to allow them easy access to government programs and services.
Comparative analysis of the SDG challenges
Any consideration of TPDs for the SDGs must be anchored in the empirical assessment of the gaps in the SDGs. Drawing from an upcoming separate study of several SDG indicators, a trend assessment finds that none are fully on track to success by 2030. Some, such as infant mortality, access to electricity, access to sanitation and access to clean water are well on their way to gaining income for more than half of the populations who need it. Some are on the path to less than half of the necessary earnings, including stunting, extreme income poverty, maternal mortality, access to family planning, completion of primary school, and noncommunicable disease mortality. Others like malnutrition and overweight children are moving backwards. Many of the SDG challenges are highly concentrated in a small number of populous countries, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, India and Pakistan. Many other smaller countries, such as South Sudan, Chad and the Central African Republic, are also seriously off track with many SDG goals.
As the world approaches the 2030 SDG deadline, a holistic approach to expanding digital access by building strong institutions, promoting data governance regimes and encouraging participatory processes could help promote much faster rates of progress in sustainable development. .
In this context, problem and country specific assessments are essential when considering the potential role and contributions of TPDs. In many countries, valid approaches will often depend on physical infrastructure and underlying economic systems. Rwanda, for example, has made tremendous progress on SDG health indicators despite the high rates of income poverty and internet poverty. This contrasts with Burkina Faso, which has lower income poverty and internet poverty but higher infant mortality.
Fundamentals of digital public technology
To help frame issues for DPT conversations, we draw from a typology of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to identify three levels of a digital ecosystem: physical infrastructure, platform infrastructure, and app-level products. The physical and platform layers provide the rules, standards and security guarantees so that local market innovators and governments can develop new ideas faster to meet ever-changing circumstances. App-level products provide specific services such as collecting data on a health need or intervention, providing market information to farmers, applying for a government license, and accessing an education or entertainment program.
We therefore describe five types of DPT platforms:
- Personal identification and registration infrastructure, which allows citizens and organizations equal access to basic rights and services.
- Payment infrastructure, which allows efficient transfer of resources with low transaction costs.
- Knowledge infrastructure, which connects educational resources and data sets in an open or authorized way.
- Data exchange infrastructure, which allows interoperability of independent databases.
- Mapping infrastructure, which intersects with data exchange platforms to enhance geospatial diagnostics and service delivery opportunities.
In principle, each type of platform can contribute directly or indirectly to a number of SDG outcomes. For example, a person’s ability to register their identity with public sector entities is critical to anything from a birth certificate (SDG 16.9 target), land title (SDG 1.4), bank account (SDG 8.10), driver’s license driving or social protection (SDG 1.3). It can also ensure access to publicly available basic services, such as public schools (SDG 4.1) and health clinics (SDG 3.8). Payment platforms can facilitate transfers related to desired policy interventions or can support unconditional goals such as extreme poverty reduction, digital food vouchers for people in food insecurity, targeted support for single mothers with young children or emergency humanitarian assistance (SDG 1.1, 2.1, 3.1, 3.2 and 11.5).
Factors promoting public welfare
Given the large potential for DPT contributions to the SDGs, a practical challenge is to “level the playing field” so that a wide range of service providers can use the physical and platform layers of the infrastructure equally. digital. Three levers can help to do this: public ownership and governance; public regulations; and open code, standards and protocols. Typically, DPTs are built and implemented through a mix of these levers, allowing different public and private actors to benefit through unique pathways.
Considerable challenges often lie in implementation design and implementation of DPTs. Problems could include a lack of financial sustainability, limited capacity within the government to oversee a platform, and barriers to public procurement. Furthermore, DPTs can undermine the outcomes of the SDGs if they aggravate inequalities in digital access, contribute to concentrations of power in certain public or private entities, or lead to the misuse and abuse of individuals’ data.
Amidst these complexities, few official donor organizations have so far addressed far-reaching issues of strategic digital development priorities. No solid official statistics are available, but an OECD estimate suggests that digital-focused funding rose to $ 6.8 billion in 2019, with multilateral institutions providing more than bilateral donors. Some large private philanthropic associations appear to be placing a higher relative priority on digital technology, with an estimated $ 491 million in funding in 2019.
As rapidly evolving digital technologies penetrate more dimensions of all societies, successful DPT strategies will require multi-pronged approaches that promote benefits while mitigating risks. Governments can establish participatory design processes and citizen-centered data governance regimes, while ensuring accountability and redress systems. Civil society can represent different voices in decision-making, while spreading digital literacy and holding governments accountable. Lenders can fund risk-based support frameworks by prioritizing sustainability.
In this context, international actors would be useful to increase their focus on TPDs as potential tools for advancing strategies and policy outcomes. As the world approaches the 2030 SDG deadline, a holistic approach to expanding digital access by building strong institutions, promoting data governance regimes and encouraging participatory processes could help promote much faster rates of progress in sustainable development. .