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Will the world reach the UN development goals by 2030 with digital public technology?

Will the world reach the UN development goals by 2030 with digital public technology?

No, but it could put it in a much better position than otherwise, finds a working report by the Brookings Institute.

‘How can digital public technologies accelerate progress on the Sustainable Development Goals?’ is a highly accessible overview of the impact – current and potential – for digital technologies in achieving greater progress towards the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. Or in some cases, such as undernourishment, reducing the move in the opposite direction.

“None of the relevant SDG indicators are fully on course for success by 2030, although some – like child mortality, access to electricity, access to sanitation, and access to drinking water – are on track to achieve gains for more than half the relevant populations in need,” may not be a particularly encouraging position to be in, but digital technologies around identity, payments and data exchange can have a gateway effect for many goals.

The paper addresses “digital public technology” (DPT) which they define as “digital assets that create a level playing field for broad access or use—by virtue of being publicly owned, publicly regulated, or open source.” There is an ongoing discourse on digital public goods and digital public infrastructure (see the recent Rockefeller Foundation report on DPI in Togo and elsewhere), though as Brookings is more concerned about the digital and the public, it has coined its own term.

It covers the OECD’s typology of three layers of digital ecosystem described as “physical infrastructure, platform infrastructure, and apps-level products. Physical and platform layers of digital infrastructure provide the rules, standards, and security guarantees so that local market innovators and governments can develop new ideas more rapidly to meet ever-changing circumstances.”

The report embarks with “there is no singular relationship between access to digital technologies and SDG outcomes. Country- and issue-specific assessments are essential,” but finds five areas where digital technologies are having an impact, and all five are relevant to digital identity:

  • Personal identification and registration infrastructure allows citizens and organizations to have equal access to basic rights and services;
  • Payments infrastructure enables efficient resource transfer with low transaction costs;
  • Knowledge infrastructure links educational resources and data sets in an open or permissioned way;
  • Data exchange infrastructure enables interoperability of independent databases; and
  • Mapping infrastructure intersects with data exchange platforms to empower geospatially enabled diagnostics and service delivery opportunities.

The first of those areas is met squarely by SDG 16.9 – a legal identity for all including birth registration. Digital technologies that aid this goal and those to allow registration for government services with that identity then unlock progress towards a raft of other SDGs the report notes: “a land title (SDG 1.4), bank account (SDG 8.10), driver’s license, or government-sponsored social protection (SDG 1.3). It can also ensure access to publicly available basic services, such as access to public schools (SDG 4.1) and health clinics (SDG 3.8).” Similar benefits can be enjoyed by small businesses when registration systems are available.

MOSIP and Estonia’s X-Road are cited as good examples of DPTs, as are aspects of Aadhaar.

Problems and safeguards for DPTs

The design and rollout of DPT can raise challenges such as a lack of financial sustainability, limited government capacity to oversee the system, or problems in procurement. The report does not specifically mention corruption.

More serious are the risks that such technologies can be used to exclude: “DPTs can risk compounding ‘digital and data deficits’ that exacerbate existing inequities between communities that are digitizing and those who are not. Connectivity-constrained communities with low digital literacy risk becoming a new ‘digital underclass’ that lags behind connected communities. Furthermore, digital technology can also deepen existing discrimination through data and tools that enable more precise segmentation of consumers.”

These platforms can also lead to a concentration of power in the government as they attempt to avoid a monopoly in the commercial sector.

The report calls on stakeholders such as civil society to help foster DPTs. Of governments it asks them to create participatory design and implementation, to establish citizen-centric data governance regimes, upskill the public sector and ensure accountability and redress.

The authors also describe there is relatively little in the way of development cash being specifically devoted to DPTs, but the amount is growing as philanthropies recognize the potential, such as the Wellcome Trust, Mastercard Foundation and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

As life is increasingly digital, “international actors and funders would be well served to increase their focus on DPTs as key tools for advancing policy strategies and outcomes.” Progress may accelerate if more governments and organizations took out their (digital) wallets.

The report concludes: “A holistic approach to broadening digital access while building robust institutions, data governance regimes, and participatory processes could help drive much faster rates of progress for many SDG targets as the world approaches its 2030 deadline.”

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