G20 and UNDP back digital public infrastructure as SDG progress stalls

By on 29/08/2023 | Updated on 29/08/2023
India government representatives present the two publications: (from L-R) Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology secretary Alkesh Kumar Sharma; electronics and IT minister Ashwini Vaishnaw; and Press Information Bureau additional director-general S G Raveendra | Credit: UNDP

Two manual-style guides championing digital public infrastructure have been published by India’s G20 presidency in partnership with the UN Development Programme (UNDP) with the aim of helping countries to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Digital public infrastructure (DPI), which can provide a major boost to the growth of fintech-relevant areas such as digital payments, is ‘a potential game-changer that can help countries achieve their national development priorities’, a UNDP webpage created for one of the guidebooks declares.

The SDGs comprise 17 ambitions – for example, ‘No Poverty’ and ‘Zero Hunger’ – agreed in 2015 by the UN General Assembly, with the aim of achieving them by 2030. An ‘SDG Progress Report’, published four months ago, stated that just 12% of the targets are on track, described progress on 50% is ‘weak and insufficient’ and found that the world has ‘stalled or gone into reverse’ on more than 30%.

The Accelerating The SDGs Through Digital Public Infrastructure: A Compendium Of The Potential Of Digital Public Infrastructure’ runs to 47 pages, setting out DPI’s potential across all 17 SDGs. The DPI Approach: A Playbook is a 57-page guide providing practical resources on how nations can go about building ‘inclusive and rights-based’ DPI.

The publications have been released ahead of the 78th UN General Assembly, which is from 18-26 September, and an ‘SDG Action Weekend’ on 16-17 September where DPI is a ‘key priority’ on the agenda, a UNDP press release states.

Read more: Expect the unexpected: the lessons from COVID about public health and preparedness

DPI’s ‘many possibilities’

DPI is one of three priority areas being addressed by the G20 Digital Economy Working Group during India’s presidency, which runs until 30 November (the other two areas are Security in the Digital Economy and Digital Skilling). The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology is the government department leading on India’s involvement.

The UNDP, which alongside the World Bank collaborated with India’s government as its knowledge partner on DPI in the Digital Economy Working Group, stated that “for the first time, a description of DPI has been collectively adopted by a group of countries, as a set of shared digital systems that should be secure and interoperable, that can be built on open standards and promote access to services for all, with governance and community as core components of DPI”.

“A set of high-level guiding principles for DPI has also been endorsed that promote (among other things) governance of DPI for public benefit, trust and transparency as an inherent aspect of DPI.”

UNDP administrator Achim Steiner  said these first-of-a-kind public resources “can assist countries to build their DPI, and help to ensure that all communities, everywhere, can reap the many benefits of our burgeoning digital world”.

He added: “We hope that these assets will inspire countries to consider the many possibilities that DPI can offer as a means to accelerate progress on the SDGs.”

Read more: Going green: governments look to fintech to help combat climate crisis

‘Emerging consensus’ on three categories

The ‘Compendium’ examines a mix of ‘mature’ DPI and others with potential. The intention is to update and publish the resource annually.

The publication describes ‘emerging consensus’ on three categories of DPI: digital identity; digital payments; and ‘consent-based’ data sharing. It adds that ‘there may be other emerging core DPI tech functions, such as discovery and fulfilment, geospatial DPI, AI [artificial intelligence] models, and aggregation of data and content.’

Examples cited related to the ‘No Poverty’ SDG include the ‘Open Credit Enablement Network’ (OCEN), a DPI that enables the secure sharing of customer credit information across India’s banks, fintech companies, and other financial institutions, including in rural areas (OCEN is also featured in connection with the ‘Decent Work and Economic Growth’ SDG); and ‘Novissi’, a platform designed by Togo’s government to deliver contactless, emergency digital cash transfers using data flows in mobile money and machine-learning techniques.

‘First-of-its-kind blueprint’

The playbook is described as providing a “first-of-its-kind blueprint that can help countries kickstart their journeys with respect to the technology, governance and community components of DPI”.

Features include checklists and assessment tools alongside case studies and suggested best practices to guide government officials across ministries and agencies on how to go about designing and implementing DPI.

Among the suggestions is to test using sandboxes. It gives an example in the health arena from India, stating that Ayushman Bharat Digital Mission (ABDM) allows companies to test their compatibility with ABDM’s application programming interfaces (APIs).

The playbook also suggested the designation of DPI champions. Here it provides an example from Estonia, name-checking Luukas Ilves – the Baltic nation’s lead civil servant tasked with the ongoing digital transformation and resilience.

Commenting to Global Government Fintech this week about how DPI can act as a fillip to fintech, Keyzom Ngodup Massally, head of digital programmes in the UNDP’s chief digital office, said: “DPI can enable solutions for everyone, such as financial services, credit for women-owned micro enterprises and so on through fintechs. It is a win-win for everyone with the right governance and safeguards.

“The G20 consensus on DPI demonstrates that this new type of infrastructure must create open, safe and inclusive ecosystems that can adapt in real-time, be publicly accountable, benefit the public and unlock innovations on top of it.”

The resources were launched at a meeting of G20 digital economy ministers in Bengaluru (also called Bangalore).

G20 digital economy ministers meeting: UK representative Paul Scully promoted his involvement.

Leaders at the meeting acknowledged challenges related to the financing of DPI, particularly in low- and middle-income countries. ‘The way forward requires embracing global multi-stakeholder approaches to build capacity, as well as provide technical assistance and adequate funding support,’ the UNDP said.

In this regard, G20 digital ministers also expressed interest in the ‘One Future Alliance’ (OFA) – a voluntary initiative proposed earlier this year by India’s G20 presidency. This aims to bring together governments, private sector, academic and research institutions, donor agencies, civil society organisations and ‘other relevant stakeholders’ and existing mechanisms to ‘synergise global efforts in the DPI ecosystem’.

India’s government last year made its payments and digital ID technology available to all countries worldwide via open APIs under the country’s ‘India Stack’ initiative. Indiastack.global, described as a ‘global repository of key projects’, includes UPI, as well as digital ID system Aadhaar.

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About Ian Hall

Ian is editor of Global Government Fintech a sister publication to Global Government Forum. Ian also writes for media including City AM and #DisruptionBanking. He is former UK director for the pan-European media network Euractiv (2011-2018), editor of Public Affairs News (2007-2011) and news editor of PR Week (2000-2007). He was shortlisted for ‘Editor of the Year’ at the British Society of Magazine Editors (BSME) Awards in 2010. He began his career in Bulgaria at English-language weekly the Sofia Echo. Ian has an MA in Urban and Regional Change in Europe and a BA in Economics, both from Durham University.

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