Digital technologies are gaining more and more attention in international dialogues on global prosperity and stability. AT August 2021 G-20 Digital Ministers identified how digitalization can enhance the ability of economies and governments to contribute to a “resilient, strong, resilient and inclusive recovery” from COVID-19. In May 2022, the Government of Indonesia, as part of its G-20 Presidency this year, called G-20 Working Group on the Digital Economy prioritize digital connectivity, digital skills and literacy, and cross-border data flows. Meanwhile, for this year’s G7 Summit at Elmau Castle, the German Presidency proposed that the goal of “being stronger together” prioritizes “social justice, equality and inclusive digitalization”.
At its best, digital technologies will significantly improve access to public services, social protection and economic opportunities for millions of people. However, deep questions are being raised. Some of them focus on corporate control and ownership of digital infrastructure and platforms. Large private firms own and operate many of the world’s underlying digital systems, exerting enormous influence on technology users and perhaps even the governments empowered to regulate them. Others focus on how digital technology has opened doors to new forms of state surveillance, empowered autocrats with repressive digital tools, exacerbated inequalities, and encouraged social divisions through the spread of misinformation.
In response, a growing international movement is emphasizing the public dimension of digital technologies. In a recent working paper, we explore how Digital Public Technologies (DPT) can help accelerate progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), focusing on extreme deprivation and basic needs. By DPT, we mean digital assets that create a level playing field for widespread access or use by virtue of being publicly owned, publicly regulated, or open source. One notable example is India’s Aadhaar platform, which provides personal identification to more than a billion citizens to give them free access to government programs and services.
Comparative analysis of SDG targets
Any consideration of the DPT for the SDGs should be based on an empirical assessment of gaps in the SDGs. Based on a separate upcoming study of multiple SDG indicators, a trend assessment indicates that none of them will be fully successful by 2030. Some, such as child mortality, access to electricity, access to sanitation, and access to drinking water, are on track to benefit more than half of the affected populations in need. Some are on track for less than half the gains needed, including stunting, extreme income poverty, maternal mortality, access to family planning, primary school completion and deaths from noncommunicable diseases. Others, such as undernourished and overweight children, are falling back. Many of the SDG challenges are concentrated in a small number of densely populated 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 behind on many of the SDG targets.
As the world approaches 2030, the SDG deadline, a holistic approach to expanding digital access while building strong institutions, promoting data governance regimes and encouraging participatory processes can help significantly accelerate the pace of sustainable development.
In this context, issue and country-specific assessments are needed when considering the potential role and contribution of the DPT. In many countries, rational approaches often depend on basic physical infrastructure and economic systems. Rwanda, for example, has made tremendous progress on SDG health indicators despite high levels of income poverty and internet poverty. This contrasts with Burkina Faso, where income poverty and internet poverty are lower, but infant mortality is higher.
Key elements of digital public technologies
To help formulate questions for the DPT discussion, we draw on the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) typology to define the three levels of the digital ecosystem: physical infrastructure, platform infrastructure, and application-level products. The physical and platform layers provide rules, standards, and security guarantees so that local market and government innovators can develop new ideas faster to keep pace with ever-changing circumstances. Application layer products provide certain services such as collecting data on health or intervention needs, providing market information to farmers, applying for a government license, and providing access to an educational or entertainment program.
We then describe five types of DPT platforms:
- An identity and registration infrastructure that provides citizens and organizations with equal access to basic rights and services..
- A payment infrastructure that enables efficient resource transfer with low transaction costs..
- A knowledge infrastructure that links educational resources and datasets in an open or permissioned way.
- A data exchange infrastructure that provides interoperability between independent databases.
- A mapping infrastructure that intersects with data exchange platforms to enhance geospatial diagnostics and service delivery..
In principle, each type of platform can directly or indirectly contribute to a range of SDG outcomes. For example, an individual’s ability to register their identity with public sector organizations is fundamental to everything from a birth certificate (SDG target 16.9), land ownership (SDG 1.4), a bank account (SDG 8.10), a driver’s license or publicly funded social security . protection (SDG 1.3). It can also provide access to public basic services such as public schools (SDG 4.1) and health clinics (SDG 3.8). Payment platforms can facilitate transfers related to desired policy measures, or they can support unconditional goals such as reducing extreme poverty, digital food stamp vouchers for people suffering from food insecurity, targeted support for single mothers with young children, or emergency humanitarian assistance. (SDGs 1.1, 2.1, 3.1, 3.2 and 11.5).
Factors for improving public welfare
Given the broad potential of DPT’s contribution to the SDGs, the practical challenge is to “level the playing field” so that a wide range of service providers can use the physical and platform layers of digital infrastructure equally. Three levers can help this: state ownership and management; state regulation; and open source, standards and protocols. Typically, DPTs are created and deployed through a combination of these levers, allowing different public and private actors to benefit in unique ways.
Significant challenges often arise when designing an implementation and deploying a DPT. Issues may include a lack of financial sustainability, limited government oversight of the platform, and barriers to public procurement. In addition, DPTs can undermine the results of the SDGs if they exacerbate inequalities in digital access, promote the concentration of power in certain public or private organizations, or lead to the misuse and abuse of personal data.
Against the background of these complexities, only a few official donor organizations have so far made general questions about the strategic priorities of digital development. There are no reliable official statistics, but one OECD assessment suggests that related digital funding has grown to $6.8 billion in 2019, with multilateral institutions providing more than bilateral donors. Several large private charities appear to be more focused on digital, with estimated funding in 2019 of $491 million.
Look forward to
As rapidly changing digital technologies permeate more and more aspects of society, successful DPT strategies will require multi-pronged approaches that deliver benefits while mitigating risks. Governments can establish participatory design processes and citizen-centric data management regimes while ensuring accountability and redress systems. Civil society can represent diverse voices in the policy making process, spreading digital literacy and holding governments accountable. Sponsors can fund support systems on a risk-based basis, prioritizing sustainability.
In this context, it would be useful for international actors to focus on DPTs as potential tools to promote policy strategies and results. As the world approaches 2030, the SDG deadline, a holistic approach to expanding digital access while building strong institutions, promoting data governance regimes and encouraging participatory processes can help significantly accelerate the pace of sustainable development.