Digital public infrastructure concept

G20 – a unique opportunity to advance digital public infrastructure

By Liv Marte Nordhaug, Co-Lead, Digital Public Goods Alliance

Faced with recurrent shocks and crises, countries everywhere are looking to build more resilient and inclusive digital foundations for public and private service delivery. As they enter this next stage of their digital journeys, advanced and emerging economies alike should apply an infrastructure mindset that drives inclusion, empowerment, and innovation. India’s G20 presidency offers a unique opportunity to convene the international community around advancing this agenda.

For countries around the world, COVID-19 demonstrated the need for a strong digital core and the ability to develop it quickly in response to a crisis. Digital resilience may have made even more of a difference in low- and middle-income countries. For instance, in an analysis of 178 programs in 85 countries, the World Bank found that countries that had invested in foundational digital systems such as databases, ID systems, and payments platforms prior to the pandemic, were better able to implement social assistance programs in response to COVID-19 and to reach more beneficiaries.

As we enter 2023, there is no shortage of global challenges, crises, and wars that will test the robustness of our digital foundations. But which are the models to point to?

The pandemic exposed vulnerabilities in government systems across the western world. Many of these systems were built early via a piecemeal approach with no unifying vision. If we could start with a blank slate, how would we build holistic, foundational digital public infrastructure that can empower and transform advanced and emerging economies alike? Countries like India and Estonia had the “late-mover” advantage of asking that very question and have built systems that are much more architecturally sound.

Few digital transformation achievements are as impressive in scale and impact as that of financial inclusion in India. In 2008, only an estimated 27% of India’s adult population had a bank account. By 2021, the proportion stood at 78%, and the gender gap in account ownership had been eliminated. These figures are even more impressive in absolute terms: nearly 500 million adults opened bank accounts between 2011 and 2017.

These achievements were powered by an approach to digital transformation that systematically removed barriers to inclusion. The primary barrier was the population’s lack of verifiable identity, a foundation of every modern market economy. Back in 2008, only one out of 25 people in India had a multi-purpose form of verifying their identity. The Aadhaar programme was launched in 2009 to address this challenge at national scale; in 2016, only seven years later, Aadhaar passed the one billion user threshold.

The effort to provide a unique identity to everyone was complemented by addressing another key barrier to financial and societal inclusion, namely bringing payment efficiencies to low value transactions. The Unified Payments Interface (UPI) was launched in 2016 as a real time mobile payments system. In December 2022, monthly UPI transactions exceeded 7.8 billion. The UPI has enabled active participation and innovation by big tech and fintech by providing a level playing field and preventing lock-in to any particular vendor.

As we begin 2023, the IndiaStack continues to evolve rapidly, with the Data Empowerment and Protection Architecture taking shape as a third horizontal layer that is unlocking a new approach to control and ownership of data. Transformative digital approaches, built by combining reusable digital building blocks, are also evolving within and across sectors. This includes the education platform DIKSHA, as well as technologies for addressing challenges related to sanitation, waste, and water usage.

Many complex challenges remain in realising the full potential of digital technologies in India. Gender equity in account ownership doesn’t mean gender equity in financial usage, for example. Better regulatory safeguards are also needed, including through the enactment of appropriate data protection legislation. Still, these remaining challenges should not detract from India’s achievements in its digital transformation journey, and its relevance as a model for other countries.

When India started its digital public infrastructure journey in 2008, it placed sovereignty and inclusion at the core. Rather than leasing proprietary digital technologies with limited scope for adaptation and high change fees, tech visionaries from India such as Nandan Nilekani and Dr. Pramod Varma built Aadhaar based on freely available open-source technologies.

Quote from Nandan Nilekani, Chairman and Co-founder, Infosys and Founding Chairman UIDAI (Aadhaar): “When we began Aadhaar, India’s unique digital Identity platform, we could leapfrog as we had no legacy systems to deal with. We also had some of the best technologists in the world working with us. This gave us the freedom and knowledge to select the most appropriate open-source technologies and adapt and build on them to meet our needs. Leveraging open-source in this way has helped India be in complete charge of its digital public infrastructure. I welcome how global collaboration around digital public goods is now helping other developing countries benefit from the same model which retains their sovereignty.”

Over the last five years, a rapidly growing and diverse group of stakeholders across the world have developed this approach into a new international digital cooperation model. The model is centred around digital public goods, open-source digital solutions that adhere to minimum criteria related to privacy and user security and do no harm by design. More and more digital public goods are being made available for countries to adopt and adapt as they build their own digital public infrastructure, including X-Road from Estonia and the Modular Open-Source Identity Platform from India. Other digital leaders such as Singapore are also sharing government technologies as digital public goods. With strong country demand for more resilient and inclusive social protection systems, reuse and adaptation of state-of-the-art open-source digital technologies is only likely to increase globally.

Quote from Cina Lawson, Minister of Digital Economy and Transformation, Togo: “Over time, I want to see more digital technologies developed in Africa for Africa. Digital public goods offer a model where African countries can develop local vendor capacity to create, adapt, and implement open-source technologies, instead of seeing us as recipients of technology. My aspiration is for Togo to become a regional DPG-powerhouse. We have already proven that we can build world-class digital public infrastructure through the Novissi-platform”.

With the challenges faced by the world today and in the future, we need to shorten the learning and adaptation journey for countries as they build their digital foundations. As co-lead of the Digital Public Goods Alliance, I therefore warmly welcome the emphasis that India has placed on digital public infrastructure as it embarks on its G20 presidency. India’s own digital transformation gives it the legitimacy to champion this agenda and share its experiences with the rest of the world. The rest of the G20 (and others) should join in to collectively shape the digital future we need. 

This post was created as part of the OECD-UNDP G20 workshop on sustainable development