27 July 2022
Brookings Paper Highlights Digital Public Tech as Driver of SDG Progress
Photo Credit: Leon-Seibert
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The paper defines digital public technologies 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”.

The authors consider how digital public technologies could accelerate progress towards the SDGs, focusing on issues of extreme deprivation and basic needs.

As an illustration, “a person’s ability to register their identity with public sector entities is fundamental to everything from a birth certificate (SDG target 16.9) to a land title (SDG 1.4), bank account (SDG 8.10), driver’s license, or government-sponsored social protection (SDG 1.3)”.

The Center for Sustainable Development at Brookings published a working paper exploring the potential of digital public technologies’ (DPTs) contribution to the SDGs. Its authors – George Ingram, John W. McArthur, and Priya Vora – argue that a “holistic approach to DPTs could help accelerate progress on many SDGs” as the 2030 deadline for their achievement approaches.

The paper defines DPTs 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.” Acknowledging both the best and the worst cases of DPTs’ use, including improvements in access to public services and economic opportunities on the one hand and new forms of government surveillance, exacerbated inequalities, and social divisions on the other, the authors consider how DPTs could accelerate progress towards the SDGs, focusing on issues of extreme deprivation and basic needs.

The paper notes that none of the relevant SDG indicators are on track to be fully achieved by 2030. While some indicators, such as child mortality, access to electricity, access to sanitation, and access to drinking water are on course to “achieve gains for more than half the relevant populations in need,” others, including stunting, extreme income poverty, maternal mortality, access to family planning, primary school completion, and non-communicable disease (NCD) mortality, “are on a path to less than half the needed gains.”

The paper underscores that there is “no singular relationship between access to digital technologies and SDG outcomes,” stressing the need for country- and issue-specific assessments.

The authors single out three layers of a digital ecosystem:

  • physical infrastructure, including broadband, mobile connections, devices, electricity, and data centers;
  • platform infrastructure, including: registries for the unique identification (ID) of people, buildings, vehicles, land plots, and products; payments infrastructure; knowledge infrastructure; data exchange infrastructure; and mapping infrastructure; and
  • apps-level products, such as farmer information solutions, e-commerce, telehealth, and many more.

The paper highlights five forms of DPT platform infrastructure that can best support the achievement of the SDGs. First, it argues, personal ID and registration infrastructure can ensure that citizens and organizations have equal access to basic rights and services. Second, the paper identifies payments infrastructure as an enabler of efficient resource transfer with low transaction costs. Third, it flags knowledge infrastructure, which links educational resources and data sets. Fourth, the paper notes, data exchange infrastructure can support interoperability of independent databases. Finally, it emphasizes mapping infrastructure, which “intersects with data exchange platforms to empower geospatially enabled diagnostics and service delivery opportunities.”

As an illustration of how these platform types can contribute to the SDGs, “a person’s ability to register their identity with public sector entities is fundamental to everything from a birth certificate (SDG target 16.9) to 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).”

The paper identifies three levers that can help deliver on DPTs’ promise to accelerate progress towards the SDGs: public ownership and governance; public regulation; and open code, standards, and protocols. Its authors make the case for a holistic and multi-pronged approach that mitigates risks, such as exclusion, concentration of power, and data misuse and abuse, and define specific roles for governments, civil society, and funders.

Governments, they argue, can create participatory design and implementation processes, establish citizen-centric data governance regimes, upskill public sector workforces, and ensure clear accountability and responsive redressal systems. Civil society can represent diverse community voices in policy making, spread digital literacy and rights, and hold governments and companies accountable. Funders can establish risk-based frameworks for support, finance the sustainability of interoperable, well-governed DPTs, and invest in ecosystem players.

The paper was released in May 2022, in advance of the July session of the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) where governments conducted in-depth review of progress towards SDGs 4 (quality education), 5 (gender equality), 14 (life below water), 15 (life on land), and 17 (partnerships for the Goals.) [Publication: How Can Digital Public Technologies Accelerate Progress on the Sustainable Development Goals?] [Executive Summary]

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