Digital Public Goods for Development

Dr. Emrys Schoemaker
Jul 24 · 5 min read
Photo by Olumide Bamgbelu on Unsplash

There is a growing focus on the idea of digital public goods (DPGs) largely driven by a recognition that the process of digital transformation needs to be influenced to achieve development outcomes. Endorsed by the UN Secretary General’s Roadmap for Digital Cooperation, the Digital Public Goods Alliance 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 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).” DPGs are a growing part of discussions about how to ensure that digital transformation delivers on development outcomes and goals.

Caribou Digital convened a group of senior policymakers, donors, and practitioners to build on the important work being done to shape the concept of digital public goods, and how they can be advanced to meet the challenges presented by increasingly pervasive and rapid digital transformation. What follows is a collated and editorialised account of the major points discussed during the conversation in the form of four key takeaways and two concrete actions.

Digital transformation is neither good, nor bad, but never neutral.

Digitalisation is transforming the world faster than ever imagined, thus there is value in discussing the concept of DPGs. In the words of one participant, ‘we need to shape it in a way that is more acceptable to us, that serves the world, rather than a few corporations’. Focusing on DPGs is a response to that — and to the recognition that the private sector is not always equipped to deliver public sector outcomes and that the interests of the public and private sector are not always aligned. For example, at the 2018 Annual Meeting of the ID4Africa Movement, a poll of the delegates identified vendor lock-in as their main concern. This emphasis on challenges of public procurement of digital infrastructure has led to a focus on open source platforms for the public sector and public sector service delivery. This is reflected in the United Nations’ Secretary General’s Roadmap towards Digital Cooperation, the Digital Impact Alliance’s work on DPGs,and the Digital Public Goods Alliance (DPGA).

Beyond DPGs as open-source platforms.

Discussion around DPGs is dominated by the use of open source platforms to address challenges such as vendor lock-in identified by those African governments from the survey. These solutions take the form of tools such as the open-source ID platform MOSIP or the interoperable financial infrastructure Mojaloop;the DPGA’s database currently lists nearly 600 platforms that qualify as DPGs. However, critically, it’s not the platforms that define DPGs but rather the standards that determine whether a platform is a public goods,such as data security, privacy, and legal compliance. But DPGs need to be viewed beyond open-source models. As participants in the discussion flagged, open-source technologies do not inherently serve the public good, as they are frequently used by the private sector to serve private interests rather than the public good, such as mobile operator MTN using the open-source financial service platform Mojaloop in Malawi. Ensuring that digital infrastructure serves the public good goes beyond questions around hardware and software to include questions of governance, security, and the relationship between the public and private sector. These issues of digital governance are critical: defining digital goals, standards, codes, and accountability mechanisms. The development sector has few shared policies, standards, and codes;the DPGs conversation should drive consistency in governance as much as in systems and platforms.

Context eats technology for breakfast.

While technologies — open source and otherwise — can help address critical issues and progress towards the SDGs, the particularities of context demand flexibility and responsiveness. Thus, an approach to DPGs that emphasises standards and governance is critical to ensuring that we can build frameworks that can help influence processes of digital transformation towards the public good. This approach must stress protection to mitigate the harms that we increasingly recognise can be amplified through digital transformation of public goods.

Expand beyond government to society.

The development community needs to expand its’ conception of public goods beyond the current focus on their role in government and state infrastructure, such as digital identity and financial rails. The understanding of public goods needs to be expanded to meet critical challenges faced by people in both the Global South and North: the challenges of work, such as disintermediating employment platforms (see our Platform Livelihoods work and others such as the Fairwork Foundation), and the erosion of a public sphere through collapsing media models (see our work on alternatives to ad-based business models and work such as the Public Media Stack). The DPGA’s work on content, such as the Global Digital Library, is also helpful here.

Concrete steps to advance the role of Digital Public Goods in development

Define our problems.

DPGs are a theme of our time, but they are clearly an evolving conversation. It’s critical that the development community starts from a definition of the core problems it seeks to address and articulates what they are trying to solve for, in order to provide guidance for how to best solve them. For example, we need to be precise about where the market failure is across the delivery value chain. Because if we don’t define our problem, we’ll waste effort and resources building things that are not as effective as they need to be.

Define standards for public goods.

To move beyond systems to focus on standards, governance, and regulations that can support the public good, we need to bring stakeholders together to agree on shared vision, values, and goals that can be supported by appropriate standards. For example, there is growing concern around the protection aspects of technologies used in cash transfers and digital identity, yet there are no shared standards across the development and humanitarian sector to guide approaches to these critical technologies. If we want to start talking about things like Open Banking, protection must be right at the core of the conversation.

This conversation on public goods brought together policy makers and practitioners from across a wide variety of contexts who spoke frankly and freely about their approach to and work on DPGs. These conversations, like the ones we remember from post- conference and seminar coffee, drinks, and dinner, are the conversations that our series of diagnostic discussions facilitates.


Chris Locke : Caribou Digital

Jonathan Wong : UNESCAP

Anand Varghese : DAI

Chris Burns : USAID

Emily Middleton : Public Digital

CV Madhukar : Omidyar

Ben Ramalingam : Humanitarian Innovation Hub

Greta Bull : CGAP

Kari Jacobsen : NORAD

Tomicah Tilleman : New America Foundation

Jason Munyan : UN Office of Special Envoy for Tech

Emrys Schoemaker : Caribou Digital

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