Expert Speak Digital Frontiers
Published on Oct 26, 2022 Updated 25 Days ago
The G20 can steward inclusive approaches to digital transformation, directing international development cooperation, and strengthening multilateralism towards a new future
Building resilience with digital public infrastructure Instability has become the norm. Rapidly worsening impacts of climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the ongoing war in Ukraine have resulted in a cycle of crises in which many countries are experiencing devastating effects on healthcare systems, education, and food security. Worldwide, there has been an increase in extreme poverty, food insecurity and hunger, and an increase in illiteracy as education is disrupted. Across the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, deaths increased on average by 16 percent in the first year of the pandemic alone, mental health suffered, and societies became more divisive. The pandemic has also exposed pre-existing vulnerabilities within our societies, as those already at the margins were pushed further. According to the United Nations (UN), “Global crises caused by the pandemic of COVID-19, since early 2020, can risk the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and as a consequence, the SDGs’ implementation process can be slowed or even reversed.”

DPI refers to solutions and systems that enable the effective provision of essential society-wide functions and services in the public and private sectors.

The residual effect on human welfare will be felt for years to come, but not all countries or peoples will experience those effects equally. The impacts have so far been disproportionate, with one key differentiator—regardless of income levels, countries that were more digitally prepared were able to adapt better. 

The Role of Digital Public Infrastructure in Crises 

It is increasingly apparent that the ability to respond swiftly and effectively to global crises—whether they be health-related, global warming, economic recession, or more—requires strong digital public infrastructure (DPI). DPI refers to solutions and systems that enable the effective provision of essential society-wide functions and services in the public and private sectors. This includes but is not limited to digital forms of ID and verification, civil registration, payment (digital transactions and money transfers), data exchange, and information systems. These foundational digital systems can increase resilience and have indeed often been catalysed at a time of crisis. For example, many of the African countries that had strong DPI prior to the COVID-19 pandemic had built and invested in these systems first in response to the 2014-2016 Ebola crisis; and Ukraine’s DPI, developed by the Ministry of Digital Transformation to focus on cyber security, is now providing essential services to citizens despite the breakdown of physical infrastructure as a consequence of the war.

Digital public goods can help countries to avoid vendor lock-in, leverage existing solutions and adapt them to local needs, and support interoperability between different platforms and solutions.

This essay will highlight how and why DPI capabilities are critical in how effectively governments respond to crises.

Why Digital Public Goods are Needed to Accelerate the DPI Agenda 

Typically, a country’s DPI may include implementations of multiple proprietary and/or open-source solutions, including digital public goods (DPGs). DPGs are open-source software, open data, open AI models, open standards, and open content that adhere to privacy and other applicable laws and best practices, do no harm by design, and help attain the SDGs. They also play a critical role in accelerating the DPI-agenda. Digital public goods can help countries to avoid vendor lock-in, leverage existing solutions and adapt them to local needs, and support interoperability between different platforms and solutions. These benefits cannot be overstated in a climate in which digital sovereignty is a top concern, and we are increasingly digitally interconnected but not yet interoperable. For example, Estonia’s approach to DPGs has become a key component of its digital diplomacy and digital foreign policy work. This includes the work the country has done to secure and protect its own digital sovereignty, but also in sharing that work with others as well. Estonia co-funds the DPG X-Road—open-source software that provides unified and secure data exchange between organisations and improves service delivery for citizens—and shares vendor training and certification approaches for DPGs through the Nordic Institute for Interoperability Solutions together with Finland and Iceland.

Estonia’s approach to DPGs has become a key component of its digital diplomacy and digital foreign policy work.

According to a survey by the non-governmental organisation (NGO) ID4Africa in 2018, vendor lock-in was the largest concern among national identity authorities in Africa. Vendor lock-in can include being locked into long-term contracts with limited flexibility and large, sometimes unexpected, fees; lack of customisation to local context; inability to integrate citizens into governance and decision-making; and centralising the market around only a few companies. Because they are open source, customisable, and localisable, DPGs can help address these concerns while enabling countries to retain strategic control over their digitalisation processes. This can lead to new types of digital cooperation and strengthen long-term capacity. This belief has been underscored by world leaders who are increasingly prioritizing DPI to bolster resilience while also creating the bedrock for more inclusive societies. In September 2022 at a UN General Assembly convening organised by the UN Development Programme and the Digital Public Goods Alliance, countries from around the world committed to sharing DPGs and best practices for the implementation of DPI. Funders also committed US$295 million to advance inclusive digital public infrastructure with DPGs.
Using a DPI Approach to Achieve Cash Transfers During COVID-19 Digital public infrastructure (DPI) has benefits well beyond pandemic response. Foundational DPI strengthens a country’s ability to address complex and cross-sectoral challenges—including by allowing data to flow more freely across institutional, sectoral, and geographical boundaries—and can be leveraged for public and private innovation by a broad range of stakeholders. In this case, government benefits like cash transfers are supported by foundational DPI. MOSIP, a modular and open-source identity platform, is the technical architecture for foundational identity systems that can then be used to access a wide variety of government and private services. Because MOSIP is implemented using open standards and application programming interfaces and is maintained as a digital public good (DPG), “MOSIP allows national identity systems to be context-specific and based on local laws and decisions…a MOSIP-based system can accommodate multiple types of authentications…devices from multiple vendors or suppliers can be used within the same system,…future proofs the system, and encourages competition in hardware provision”. One critical use of digital technologies like MOSIP has been for pandemic-related subsidy payments, which helps build the infrastructure for future government-to-person service delivery as well. The Philippines Statistics Authority anticipates leveraging MOSIP to transfer social benefits to 18 million households following their pandemic assistance programme. Another successful example is the leadership of Sierra Leone who led OpenG2P, a framework that brings together a suite of DPGs to implement interoperable and inclusive systems for government-to-people payments. OpenG2P partnered with MOSIP to support COVID-19 response. “Through this collaboration, we hope to embed digital identity and government-to-person payment systems within broader digital public infrastructures to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of payments to people. At the same time, we are placing human rights and privacy-first approaches at the center to make sure no one is left behind,” said Robert Opp, Chief Digital Officer, UN Development Programme. Funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates’ Foundation, Tata Trust, Omidyar Networks, and NORAD, MOSIP is being adopted by the Philippines, Morocco, and Togo, and piloted in Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, and Guinea. As a DPG, MOSIP is representative of the adoptable, interoperable, and transparent qualities of DPGs, making them particularly beneficial in the implementation of a country’s DPI.

What the G20 Can Do 

What can forums like the G20 do to enable the adoption and scale of DPI, including as a global approach for addressing climate change? Representing nearly 60 percent of the world’s population, the G20 can be a strong advocate for DPI as necessary for strengthening country, regional, and global resilience in an age of recurrent crises, and DPGs can be highlighted as a way of enabling this to happen faster and better. The G20 can set a forward-looking example by advocating for the use of cross-sectorally enabling open-source technologies to build resilience and promote global collaboration. The G20 members can consider a few actions, as outlined below through concrete examples from both the COVID-19 pandemic and through the lens of the ongoing climate crisis:
  • Committing to open data access
Digital solutions, like software, are most effective when powered by relevant, high-quality data. Access to and dissemination of data is critical to helping governments, NGOs, and multilaterals build resilience. Organisations that collect and process data must lead by example by providing and encouraging open and free access. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, access to vaccines was a top priority. However, the data related to those vaccines was also crucial to a country’s successful pandemic response and vaccine roll out.

The G20 can set a forward-looking example by advocating for the use of cross-sectorally enabling open-source technologies to build resilience and promote global collaboration.

In their pandemic response, Jamaica opted to use CommCare, a DPG developed by Dimagi, deployed offline first as a mobile application, and used to track and support clients before, during, and after they are vaccinated. Their technology helped facilities and healthcare workers prepare for vaccination distribution, provide analytics, and create visualisations to monitor the progression of vaccine delivery. Jamaica then relied on open access to the data derived by CommCare to provide seamless credentialing via another DPG—DIVOC—to those that had been vaccinated. The G20 can help technologies like CommCare and DIVOC achieve global reach and become an integral part of a country's DPI.
  • Encourage inclusive private and public collaboration
There is an urgent need to bridge information and action. Taking an open and inclusive approach to DPI can stimulate entrepreneurship, innovation, and productive competition, but the private sector should also take a proactive role in producing and contributing to DPI. One successful example is Uganda’s UGHub, which allows government services to act as a single unified system, easing access to e-services, breaking down silos, and lessening the administrative burden on Ugandan citizens. A cornerstone of UGHub’s success has been coordination and integration with the private sector and international organisations on the platform, which has helped streamline data sharing, including across universities, banks, and more. As an open-source platform, the Ugandan government can sustain UGHub locally, leveraging their digital ecosystem partners in the private and public sector, and for others to model it and learn from it. Governments across the G20 should similarly engage with civil society, private sector organisations, and other stakeholders to provide data in interoperable formats that can be easily reused to promote collaboration.

A cornerstone of UGHub’s success has been coordination and integration with the private sector and international organisations on the platform, which has helped streamline data sharing, including across universities, banks, and more.

  • Increase public sector support and funding for joint DPI
Governments should undertake joint investments in, and help establish dedicated governance for, DPI that is needed to fulfil international commitments in areas such as climate change mitigation. Doing so, in close coordination with all sectors (private, public, and civil society) can help avoid fragmentation and duplication while harnessing the cooperation and ongoing dialogue needed to address global challenges. The G20 itself has identified this challenge in its ‘Investing in Climate Change Mitigation’ report. “s current estimates indicate, more than US$100 billion per year is needed to meet the climate change challenges that include not only investments in renewable energy, but also energy efficiency and other strategies like deployment of clean coal and carbon capturing and storage technologies at a scale required as well as adapting to climate change.” DPI that is open, accessible, and cross-sectorally enabling can help mitigate the costs associated with building communities and regions resilient to climate change and other crises as well.
  • Set the global norms and standards to protect people 
Digital public infrastructure and other digital systems can unlock value by breaking down data silos and creating shared technology infrastructure, encouraging private sector participation for the delivery of innovative solutions. However, they can also expose citizens to risks such as privacy violations, data-driven behavioural manipulation, identity theft and fraud, and exclusion from essential public services. That is why a 2021
report by Rockefeller, the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Digital Public Goods Alliance outlined a vision for DPI that safeguards inclusion, trust, competition, security, and privacy; uses data in DPI for public value and private empowerment; and builds private and public capacity, particularly in implementing countries.

Digital public infrastructure and other digital systems can unlock value by breaking down data silos and creating shared technology infrastructure, encouraging private sector participation for the delivery of innovative solutions.

Therefore, the focus must be on designing, implementing, and supporting inclusive DPI as a central priority for global digital cooperation in the G20. There must also be thought leadership and research coming from the G20 on the DPI approach to sectors such as justice, food security, and digital trade for micro, small, and medium enterprises.

Conclusion 

The pandemic has delayed achieving the SDGs, upturned our societies, and deepened socioeconomic divisions. However, it has also proven that taking a whole-of-society approach, building and promoting regional collaboration on good DPI, and investing in sustainable technologies can make the difference in how we address challenges now and in the future. Digital public infrastructure, when implemented inclusively with safeguards in mind, can contribute to a country’s resilience in the face of crisis, as seen in response to COVID-19 and more. We must make the creation and sharing of DPGs and DPIs the norm, rather than the exception, to be deployed not only in times of desperation. The focus on inclusive DPI must remain a central priority for global digital cooperation in the G20. The G20 can play a pivotal role in stewarding inclusive approaches to digital transformation, directing international development cooperation, and strengthening multilateralism towards a new future, one in which multilateralism champions standards and protocols for free, inclusive, innovative, and open DPI to transform the lives of the people and for the larger global good.
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