Why digital public infrastructure can be a gamechanger for children

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This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Chris Larsson, Chief Information Officer, UNICEF, Fui Meng Liew, Chief Digital Centre of Excellence, UNICEF, Carolin Frankenhauser, Technology for Development Officer, UNICEF


  • In the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, 100 million more children fell into poverty, a 10% increase since 2019.
  • Using digital technologies to create a digital public infrastructure can help us create a society where all children are included and have agency, opportunity and their rights fulfilled, without discrimination.
  • Digital public infrastructures can enable access to protection and health services, reduce poverty and boost educational access for children worldwide.

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% 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.

Discover

What is the World Economic Forum doing to help ensure global food security?

Two billion people in the world currently suffer from malnutrition and according to some estimates, we need 60% more food to feed the global population by 2050. Yet the agricultural sector is ill-equipped to meet this demand: 700 million of its workers currently live in poverty, and it is already responsible for 70% of the world’s water consumption and 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

New technologies could help our food systems become more sustainable and efficient, but unfortunately the agricultural sector has fallen behind other sectors in terms of technology adoption.

Launched in 2018, the Forum’s Innovation with a Purpose Platform is a large-scale partnership that facilitates the adoption of new technologies and other innovations to transform the way we produce, distribute and consume our food.

With research, increasing investments in new agriculture technologies and the integration of local and regional initiatives aimed at enhancing food security, the platform is working with over 50 partner institutions and 1,000 leaders around the world to leverage emerging technologies to make our food systems more sustainable, inclusive and efficient.

Learn more about Innovation with a Purpose’s impact and contact us to see how you can get involved.

Digital technologies can help us create that world for children. Harnessing digital technologies, equitable access to connectivity and building foundational digital public infrastructures are increasingly recognized as effective ways of providing children and adolescents with access to education, health and protection.

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.

Reducing poverty

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.

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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.

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EDISON Alliance: What is the Forum doing to close the digital gap?

COVID-19 has exposed digital inequities globally and exacerbated the digital divide. Most of the world lives in areas covered by a mobile broadband network, yet more than one-third (2.9 billion people) are still offline. Cost, not coverage, is the barrier to connectivity.

At The Davos Agenda 2021, the World Economic Forum launched the EDISON Alliance, the first cross-sector alliance to accelerate digital inclusion and connect critical sectors of the economy.

Through the 1 Billion Lives Challenge, the EDISON Alliance aims to improve 1 billion lives globally through affordable and accessible digital solutions across healthcare, financial services and education by 2025.

Read more about the EDISON Alliance’s work in our Impact Story.

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.

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