Financing the Digital Public Goods Ecosystem

Part I: Funding the technologies at the core

Even digital public goods that are in wide demand, and have proven their potential to address development needs in multiple countries, struggle to attract the contributions and financial support required to maintain and evolve over time. This blog considers how to change that through coordinated, sustainable grant funding. This is the first in a series of blogs exploring how to finance the digital public goods ecosystem. Read part II and part III.

In the Digital Public Goods Alliance (DPGA) we believe that digital public goods (DPGs)* are essential to unlocking the full potential of digital technologies to enhance human welfare at scale. Their relevance to one or multiple sustainable development goals (SDGs), combined with their adoptability and adaptability, allows DPGs to strengthen international digital cooperation. Stakeholders can join forces to support solutions that address many of today’s greatest global challenges in critical areas such as health, education and climate change. DPGs are of particular importance for resource constrained countries looking to accelerate development through improving access to digital services.

Still, precisely due to their nature as “public goods” – which ensures that no one can prevent others from benefiting from them – DPGs can be difficult to fund through market mechanisms, and some of them should not have to prioritise generating profit.

Sustainable funding for the public good 

The DPGA believes that DPGs with the highest potential to accelerate attainment of the SDGs in multiple countries should be sustainably funded in order to maximise the global public good. 

We believe that sustainable grant funding is most critical for “infrastructural” DPGs that can be deployed as relevant parts of a country’s foundational or functional digital public infrastructures (DPIs). DPIs tend to be cross-sectorally enabling, serving as the rails that public and private service delivery can run on. They can therefore have a disproportionately positive impact on achieving the SDGs. Conversely, when DPIs are not well-designed and well-implemented, they can do harm to the economy and society. It is in the global public interest that they are built to serve society’s poor and marginalised groups, safeguard human rights, and enable a diverse and flourishing economic ecosystem. Stable grant funding for state-of-the-art infrastructural DPGs can help ensure this.

Building out ecosystems with infrastructural DPGs at the core

Sustainably funded infrastructural DPGs can become a reliable core for broader ecosystems through community building:

  • For the Modular Open Source Identity Platform (MOSIP) core code management and evolution is fully funded by grants from a group of philanthropic and bilateral donors.** This enables the team responsible for managing and evolving the generic platform to focus exclusively on maximising utility for those the platform is designed to serve – in this case, countries in need of foundational digital identity systems.
  • Similarly backed by grant funding for core code development and maintenance, the team behind District Health Information Software 2 (DHIS2) has prioritised community building within and between the 70+ countries that have adopted the software, enabling countries to share improvements and related innovations. This is best exemplified by Sri Lanka, the first country in the world to use DHIS2 for COVID-19 surveillance, who shared this groundbreaking innovation with the global DHIS2 community. Today, this system is operational in 38 countries and is under development in fourteen more.
  • The data exchange layer X-Road, which is publicly funded by NIIS members (currently Estonia and Finland), demonstrates how infrastructural DPGs can use community building to advance both the core technology and the  quality of downstream deployments. The X-Road Community connects a diverse group of individuals and allows anyone to contribute to the open-source technology. This community-based support and knowledge-sharing helps local vendors around the world build the expertise needed to provide quality services to stakeholders adopting the technology.
More and better coordinated funding needed

Since the creation of the DPGA in 2019, we have learned that while many stakeholders are individually doing great work that can help create a comprehensive and vibrant ecosystem built around infrastructural DPGs, it remains too limited and fragmented to usher in a paradigm shift. For that to happen, we must mobilise more resources both to strengthen existing financing instruments and to create new ones, while ensuring cross-coordination throughout different ecosystem-parts. The magnitude of this task is simply too large and complex in nature for any single entity to address all the challenges by itself.

As a multi-stakeholder alliance dedicated to the advancement of digital public goods, the DPGA is well placed to help build a partnership-oriented and coordinated funding model with infrastructural digital public goods at the core. We look forward to working with other stakeholders to shape this in the coming months. 

The next part in this blog series

Funding infrastructural DPGs so that they can be built and maintained over time as generic “state-of-the art”, dependable and trustworthy technologies, is a critical first step to realising their full impact-potential. However, a sustainable funding model must also support countries to assess, implement and maintain DPGs. We will write about funding needs for country technical assistance in the next part of this blog series.

*Endorsed by the UN Secretary General’s Roadmap for Digital Cooperation, the DPGA defines digital public goods as: “open source software, open data, open AI models, open standards and open content that adhere to privacy and other applicable laws and best practices, do no harm, and help attain the SDGs.”

**Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Omidyar Network, Tata Trusts and the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad).

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Cover Image: Photo by Zane Lee on Unsplash