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Early and proactive public engagement needed for DPI projects: panel

ID4Africa livecast maps out route to success as debate picks up steam
Early and proactive public engagement needed for DPI projects: panel

Digital Public Infrastructure has become a hot topic in the development and identity communities, but as with any technology, will only deliver the promised benefits if properly implemented, said panelists discussing insights from an ID4Africa 2023 workshop.

Workshop 1 on “User-Centric Digital Public Infrastructure” was chaired by the World Bank at the May event in Nairobi, Kenya.

Julia Clark of the World Bank started the livecast segment with a definition of Digital Public Infrastructure as the platforms that serve as the “roads and railways” of the digital age, identifying digital identity, payments, data exchange and trust.

The workshop presented a fictional nation, dubbed “Digital Numeriqa,” attempting to digitize and improve the inclusivity of its economy by establishing universal digital identity. The scenario continued with a supposition of political support at the highest levels, adequate funding, a carefully thought-out plan and the best of intentions. The hypothetical program is supposed to then run up against familiar problems with low registration in rural areas, unsuccessful integration by the government agencies that might have won over public support, followed by a loss of the momentum the project had enjoyed and the cancellation of the project.

Workshop participants were asked what could have been done differently to make the digital ID program successful.

Effective public engagement can help with both planning and public support, Clark says, and the World Bank provides tools to help countries carry it out.

Key insights from the presentations and discussion for helping people include the need to proactively identify and involve local community groups, the benefits of starting the engagement process early, and the need to support government officials who may not have experience in community engagement in these efforts.

Representatives of digital rights group Namati, DPI advocacy group Co-Develop, the Center for DPI, and government agencies in Benin, Ethiopia, and the DRC summarized some of the challenges that are experienced by people attempting to obtain a legal ID, and in improving systems to make registration easier. They also explored the needs of service providers in the public and private sectors, which often means improving the infrastructure the have in order to facilitate integration of the digital ID system.

Skepticism and governance of DPI

The Presidents of India and the U.S., Narendra Modi and Joe Biden, announced an intention to work together to promote DPI implementation as part of a strategic partnership. The partners say in point 39 of a 58-point agreement that they recognize the potential of DPI “for enabling open and inclusive digital economies.”

India and the U.S. plan to explore a digital development partnership under the agreement, according to a joint statement.

Not all observers agree that the stated benefits will be realized, however. An editorial in Indian publication The Wire frames digitized government services as “experiments (which) always came at the cost of individual rights of populations in the Global South and have undermined democratic institutions in various nations.”

The article refers to a World Economic Forum paper from 2016 as part of an argument that the development benefits of DPI are much less certain than the profit motive of institutions.

A Medium post from Caribou Digital points out that governance is the key to realizing the potential of DPI, which is “neither good, nor bad but never neutral.”

Dr. Emrys Schoemaker writes that institutional capacity and expertise is needed, along with risk and impact assessments, and national governance frameworks.

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