Why digital public infrastructure can be a gamechanger for children
In many parts of the world, the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic seems to be over and lives are back to pre-pandemic normal. This is not the case for everyone, however. The shadow cast by the pandemic is long and still defines the lives of children, especially in low-and middle-income countries of the world. Here are some examples of how.
In the first two years of the pandemic, 100 million more children fell into poverty, a 10 per cent increase since 2019. Against the backdrop of a global learning crisis, with nearly two-thirds of 10-year-olds unable to read and understand a simple text, the global disruption to education caused by the pandemic compounded the crisis and was without parallel, with severe effects on learning.
Education systems across the world were brought to a halt and the quality and reach of eventual remote learning opportunities varied greatly. They were, at best, partial substitutes for in-person learning. While, for the first time in three decades, we are witnessing the largest sustained backslide in childhood vaccinations: some 25 million children are now missing out on life-saving vaccines every year.
Moving the needle on these challenges requires collective and renewed efforts if we are to come anywhere near achieving the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 to create a society in which all children are included and have agency, opportunity and their rights fulfilled, without discrimination.
Digital public infrastructure refers to solutions and systems that enable the effective provision of essential society-wide functions and services in the public and private sectors. Examples of its potential for children include:
Enabling access to protection and health services
Digital technologies provide transformative improvements for Civil Registration and Vital Statistics (CRVS) systems. These systems form the basis of birth registration; a prerequisite for exercising children’s rights. Without legal proof of identity, children are left uncounted and invisible, excluding them from access to social protection services, education and health services. Digitising the collection, processing and storage of civil registration data provides a range of benefits across sectors. It improves the integrity of the process, enables instant record retrieval at any registration point and can provide the basis for digital identification. A cross-sectoral approach and interoperability with other sectors, such as health, are critical for realizing these benefits.
Through digital government-to-person (G2P) payments and digitised social registries, the most vulnerable children can be reached with social protection services and emergency response and resilience can be significantly improved. UNICEF advocates for the importance of routine social protection data and information systems for shock preparedness and response. These systems are particularly powerful if interoperability or data-sharing arrangements with other government registries, such as CRVS systems, are provided. UNICEF has supported the implementation of such systems in Nepal, Iraq and Somalia.
Improving access to education
Scaling digital infrastructure for learning is a critical component of transforming education. Through the Gateways to Public Digital Learning Initiative, UNICEF advocates for the accessibility of education content via a national platform that is overseen, sustained and improved with public resources. These platforms should be free for all users and complement and support teaching and learning that happens in school. Many successful examples exist: the Learning Passport platform, developed by UNICEF and powered by Microsoft, allows governments worldwide to manage the educational crisis by enabling teaching and learning through a localised curriculum that is easily accessible both online and offline. Similarly, India’s digital learning platform DIKSHA, for example, enables learners to access more than 80,000 e-books in multiple languages. It also provides training opportunities for teachers. DIKSHA is based on open-source technology and can be customised by other countries.
The benefits of digital public infrastructure are clear, but they do not come without significant risks for children’s rights unless mitigated. Ensuring data protection through clear data-sharing agreements and regulatory frameworks is critical. To address the risks of exclusion, digital innovations must be complemented by non-technological innovations to reach every child. In the case of CRVS, for example, this includes decentralisation to increase supply, as well as generating demand through incentive schemes. In Tanzania, for example, UNICEF supported the Government in digitising and decentralising birth registration and rendering the process accessible and affordable. This delivered a dramatic increase in registration coverage for children under five years of age.
Ensuring data protection is critical
Thanks to UNICEF’s experience in this field, we propose three things to accelerate the building of digital public infrastructure for children:
Firstly, improve the availability and maturity of open-source solutions or digital public goods (DPGS). This is crucial for key use cases or infrastructure elements, such as civil registration, social registries and government-to-person payments systems. DPGs need to be supported by strong implementation ecosystems to inspire confidence in their implementation readiness.
Secondly, increase investment as implementing population-scale systems is costly and has, therefore, often been neglected. It is critical for governments, donors and implementing partners to recognize the importance of such systems across sectors and for shock resilience. Pooling funds through new modalities, such as the Co-Develop Fund, could increase the capacity of governments and partners to implement such systems.
Thirdly, increase multi-stakeholder cooperation. Major international collaboration instruments, such as the UN’s Global Digital Compact and the Digital Public Goods Alliance, co-hosted by UNICEF, are already underway to increase collaboration on sharing and implementing digital public infrastructure. Yet, much more knowledge and technology sharing is required to fully unlock the potential of digital for children.
UNICEF is committed to working with partners on advancing the implementation of digital public infrastructure for every child. Together we can build a future where digital technologies are used to enable every child to fulfil their potential.
Republished from the World Economic Forum in accordance with Creative Commons Licensing.