Digital Public Infrastructure for An Inclusive Future

At the upcoming 77th Session of the UN General Assembly, world leaders alongside members of the private sector and civil society will convene on 21 September for a side-event titled: ‘The Future of Digital Cooperation: Building Resilience through Safe, Trusted, and Inclusive Digital Public Infrastructure’. The event will map out a bold, inclusive, and innovative digital cooperation agenda to put the rights of people at the centre of digital public infrastructure, and garner the technological and financial contributions needed to move it forward. Save the date to join the event online.

The digital world reflects the physical world. It can mirror inequities passively or expose them to create change. There’s an urgent need to prioritise inclusive access to services, such as IDs, banking, cash transfers and civil registration, especially for women. The way digital public infrastructure is designed, including its interplay with physical infrastructure, can help address existing gaps and create more inclusive services for all.  

In the Philippines, like elsewhere, the process of obtaining official documentation that proves a person’s identity has traditionally been cumbersome and costly. People rely on identification to go about their daily activities and those who are unable to get a trusted ID (known locally as a ‘valid ID’) face exclusion on multiple levels. 

“If you need to do anything – from opening a bank account, applying for a business license, applying for a driving license, to applying for a passport – you typically need to present multiple documents in their original form. Often Filipinos need to go to a notary to validate the documents,” explained Jonathan Marskell, Senior Programme Officer for the World Bank’s Identification for Development (ID4D) initiative, in reference to the experience in the Philippines prior to ID4D. “All of that costs a lot of money – and demands a lot of time. Mothers may have to wait an entire day at a government office to apply, and another to pick up the ID.”

The power of digital

That’s changing with the introduction of the digital Philippine Identification System (PhilSys), launched in 2019. Now, people living outside of city centres and in low-income households can more easily get the ID they need to go about their daily lives. PhilSys is free and universally accessible – the first ID system to have these important characteristics. 

PhilSys builds on the Modular Open Source Identity Platform (MOSIP), an open-source platform that countries can adopt and adapt to develop their foundational ID systems. As a digital public good (DPG), MOSIP provides governments with a cost-effective way of implementing their digital ID system while incorporating design features that can mitigate risks and harms. 

PhilSys, a digital solution contextualised to meet local needs, is helping many Filipinos obtain a trusted ID for the first time. With this comes new opportunities. The ID registration centres were set up at the same facilities used for opening bank accounts, which by extension allowed roughly 10 million Filipinos who were previously unbanked to open a bank account. Since the launch of this digital system, about 70 million people have registered. The World Bank, through ID4D, has been providing intensive technical assistance to the government, from when it was being conceptualised in 2018 to today’s implementation. ID4D’s sister initiative, Digitising Government to Person Payments (G2Px) with the Beneficiary-FIRST project, are now also supporting the usage of PhilSys to make social cash transfers more efficient, transparent, and beneficiary-centred.

The COVID-19 pandemic has directly exposed the global divide. Countries all over the world are now prioritising building digital public infrastructure such as digital IDs, digital payments or data exchange systems. Examples like PhilSys demonstrate the importance of being inclusive by design and the need to strengthen digital cooperation to reap the benefits of these systems.

Building an inclusive future 

Building digital systems that are inclusive for everyone – including women, the elderly, people with disabilities, people living in low-connectivity areas or with various levels of literacy – requires society-wide cooperation and intentional design. 

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is supporting partners to build these inclusive digital ecosystems and has put forward a set of inclusive by design principles that can be adopted to boost digital transformation at the country level. Advocating for the appropriate use of DPGs is one of the recommended practices. Being open source, DPGs do not lock governments in with specific vendors so the technology can be adopted and adapted to meet context specific circumstances. The interoperable nature of DPGs also means they can connect with other systems so people can access the services they need more easily.

DPGs do not ensure inclusivity on their own, but are key components that contribute to building inclusive digital public infrastructure and improving services. Based on estimates from research conducted by the Digital Public Good Alliance (DPGA) and UNDP along with Dalberg Advisors, digital public infrastructure can potentially expand access to justice for 52 to 63 million people in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) by 2030. This leapfrogs development trajectories by more than 10 years, as only 26.5 million people in 70 LMICs have access to their local justice system today. 

As the global community looks to move from interlocking challenges to interoperable solutions, leveraging the potential of DPGs and open-source technology is important to enable safe, trusted, and inclusive DPI.

Inspiration from around the world 

Achieving inclusivity requires making a series of deliberate and interconnected choices that seek to bring everyone into the fold. Highlighted below are two examples of inclusive DPGs for DPI and key lessons learned through their implementation:   

  • Physical infrastructure still matters. As Ethiopia partners with MOSIP, ID registration centres are being placed in locations with a strong likelihood of reaching women, such as school and health facilities, rather than only at the local government office. This is to help address the gender gap, as the 2017 ID4D-Findex survey found 49 percent of women do not have an ID compared to 30 percent of men. 
  • Adapt for low-resource areas. During Bangladesh’s pilot with the civil registration system OpenCRVS in 2020, there was a 49 percent increase in birth registrations. Health workers were able to help register a new birth by visiting the family at home and completing the application form using a tablet. The family would then receive a SMS text message once the birth certificate was ready for pick up, and would not need to apply online by themselves. 

As the scope and scale of DPGs increase, existing DPI provides an opportunity to examine what has worked and what has not, as well as facilitate widespread knowledge sharing to create systems with inclusivity built in. 

It takes a global village  

Collective action is needed to seize the digital moment. This includes continued investments to foster and govern the evolution of relevant DPGs to build up contributor communities along with conscious design decisions. Reaching marginalised populations or people in areas with low-connectivity can be costly, and therefore financing is needed to offset end-to-end DPI implementation and to incentivize prioritising hard-to-reach and disadvantaged groups. 

The Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad), a co-founder of the DPGA, is a strong proponent of digital transformation that benefits LMICs and supports achieving the SDGs. “We see digital public goods as fundamentally important for implementing digital public infrastructure at scale because of their open and transparent nature, and the possibility to adapt solutions to local needs while at the same time strengthening local ownership and capacity,” said Norad’s Director-General, Bard Vegar Solhjell.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is a critical resource partner in this work and plays an instrumental role in financing and supporting initiatives to centre inclusion within digital transformation. “When countries leverage digital public infrastructure, they are better equipped to design and deploy lower-cost technology at scale, not only to meet their most vulnerable citizens’ needs but also to catalyze economic growth. This is why we invest in flexible, open-source tools like MOSIP, Mojaloop, and DHIS2, that support countries’ efforts to build more inclusive, secure, and resilient digital systems,” said Rodger Voorhies, President, Global Growth & Opportunity, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. 

As countries develop and evolve their digital systems, ensuring those systems are inclusive and accessible requires conscious design, informed decision making, and investment – an inclusive digital future for all is dependent on it.

Save the date to join the ‘The Future of Digital Cooperation: Building Resilience through Safe, Trusted, and Inclusive Digital Public Infrastructure’ UNGA77 side event on 21 September. 

Learn more about digital cooperation efforts to support #DPGs4DPI via the DPG Charter.