Editor's note:

Parts of this blog draw from the executive summary of the May 2022 Brookings working paper “How can digital public technologies accelerate progress on the Sustainable Development Goals.”

Digital technology is receiving growing attention in international dialogues on global prosperity and stability. In August 2021, the G-20 digital ministers identified ways digitalization can enhance the ability of the economy and government to contribute to a “resilient, strong, sustainable, and inclusive recovery” following COVID-19. In May 2022, the Indonesian government, as part of its G-20 presidency this year, encouraged the G-20 Digital Economy Working Group to prioritize digital connectivity, digital skills and literacy, and cross-border data flows. Meanwhile, for this year’s upcoming G-7 Summit at Schloss Elmau, the German presidency has proposed that the objective of “stronger together” should prioritize “social justice, equality, and inclusive digitalization.” 

In the best cases, digital technologies are contributing to massive improvements in access to public services, the provision of social protection, and economic opportunities for millions of people. Nonetheless, profound questions are being raised. Some of these focus on corporate control and ownership of digital infrastructure and platforms. Large private firms own and manage many of the world’s underlying digital systems, with enormous influence over users of the technologies and potentially even the governments with a mandate to regulate them. Others focus on how digital technologies have opened the door to new forms of government surveillance, empowered autocrats with repressive digital tools, exacerbated inequalities, and encouraged social divisions through the spread of disinformation.  

In response, a growing international movement is emphasizing the public dimension of digital technologies. In a recent working paper, we explore how digital public technology (DPT) could help accelerate progress on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with an emphasis on extreme deprivation and basic needs. By DPT, we mean digital assets that create a level playing field for broad access or use—by virtue of being publicly owned, publicly regulated, or open source. One prominent example is India’s Aadhaar platform, which provides personal identification for more than a billion citizens to allow them ready access to government programs and services.  

Benchmarking SDG challenges

Any consideration of DPTs for the SDGs needs to be anchored in empirical assessment of SDG gaps. Drawing from a separate forthcoming study of numerous SDG indicators, a trend assessment finds that none are fully on course for success by 2030. 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. Some are on a path to less than half the needed gains, including stunting, extreme income poverty, maternal mortality, access to family planning, primary school completion, and noncommunicable disease mortality. Others like undernourishment and children overweight are moving backward. Many of the SDG challenges are highly concentrated in a small number of populous countries, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, India, and Pakistan. Many other smaller countries, such as South Sudan, Chad, and Central African Republic, are also severely off-track on many SDG targets.  

As the world approaches the 2030 SDG deadline, a holistic approach to broadening digital access while building robust institutions, fostering data governance regimes, and encouraging participatory processes could help drive much faster rates of sustainable development progress.  

In this context, issue- and country-specific assessments are essential when considering the potential role and contributions of DPTs. In many countries, sound approaches will frequently depend on the underlying physical infrastructure and economic systems. Rwanda, for instance, has made tremendous progress on SDG health indicators despite high rates of income poverty and internet poverty. This contrasts with Burkina Faso, which has lower income poverty and internet poverty but higher child mortality.  

Core elements of digital public technology

To help frame the issues for DPT conversations, we draw from an Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) typology to identify three layers of a digital ecosystem: physical infrastructure, platform infrastructure, and apps-level products. Physical and platform layers 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. Apps-level products provide specific services such as gathering data on a health need or intervention, providing market information to farmers, making an application for a government license, and providing access to an educational or entertainment program.  

We then describe five types of DPT platforms:  

  1. Personal identification and registration infrastructure, which allows citizens and organizations equal access to basic rights and services.
  2. Payments infrastructure, which enables efficient resource transfer with low transaction costs.
  3. Knowledge infrastructure, which links educational resources and datasets in an open or permissioned way.  
  4. Data exchange infrastructure, which enables interoperability of independent databases.  
  5. Mapping infrastructure, which intersects with data exchange platforms to empower geospatially-enabled diagnostics and service delivery opportunities.

In principle, each platform type can contribute directly or indirectly to a range of SDG outcomes. For example, a person’s ability to register their identity with public sector entities is fundamental to everything from a birth certificate (SDG target 16.9), 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 public schools (SDG 4.1) and health clinics (SDG 3.8). Payment platforms can facilitate transfers linked to desired policy interventions or they can support unconditional objectives such as extreme poverty reduction, digital food stamp vouchers for food insecure people, targeted support to single mothers with young children, or emergency humanitarian assistance (SDGs 1.1, 2.1, 3.1, 3.2, and 11.5). 

Factors for promoting public well-being

Given the broad potential for DPT contributions to the SDGs, a practical challenge is to “level the playing field” such that a wide array of service providers can use the physical and platform layers of digital infrastructure equally. Three levers can help do this: public ownership and governance; public regulation; and open code, standards, and protocols. Typically, DPTs are built and deployed through a mix of these levers, enabling different public and private actors to benefit through unique pathways.  

Considerable challenges often lie in the implementation design and deployment of DPTs. Issues might include a lack of financial sustainability, limited capabilities within government to oversee a platform, and government procurement obstacles. Further, DPTs can undermine SDG outcomes if they compound inequities in digital access, contribute to concentrations of power in certain public or private entities, or lead to misuse and abuse of individuals’ data.  

Amid these complexities, few official donor organizations have so far made broad issues of digital development strategic priorities. Robust official statistics are not available, but one OECD estimate suggests relevant digital-focused funding rose to $6.8 billion in 2019, with multilateral institutions providing more than bilateral donors. A few large private philanthropies appear to be placing greater relative priority on digital technology, with estimated funding adding up to $491 million in 2019. 

Looking forward

As fast-changing digital technologies penetrate more dimensions of all societies, successful DPT strategies will require multipronged approaches that promote benefits while mitigating risks. Governments can establish participatory design processes and citizen-centric data governance regimes while ensuring accountability and redressal systems. Civil society can represent diverse voices in policymaking while spreading digital literacy and holding governments accountable. Funders can finance risk-based support frameworks while prioritizing sustainability.  

In this context, international actors would be well served to increase their focus on DPTs as potential tools for advancing policy strategies and outcomes. As the world approaches the 2030 SDG deadline, a holistic approach to broadening digital access while building robust institutions, fostering data governance regimes, and encouraging participatory processes could help drive much faster rates of sustainable development progress.