Leveraging India’s Digital Success To Achieve Sustainable Goals – OpEd

A recent international summit in New Delhi brought leaders and heads of nations of the G20 grouping to discuss and debate pressing issues concerning our globe – including climate change, economy, poverty, war and conflict, diseases, and inequality.

However, sustainable development would be vital to addressing these concerns and ensuring that our globe is pollution-free and not exhausted of its natural resources, thus ensuring that future generations can meet their needs. Several of these challenges are interconnected in nature, such as poverty, inequality, and climate change, and sustainable development offers a working framework that promises to address them holistically. Take, for example, poverty; sustainable development provides an approach for inclusive policies that benefit all and not just a select few. Or, for that matter, environmental degradation, where it offers a framework for implementing sustainable practices to protect the environment.

Nations in the G20 account for 80% of the world’s population and about 85% of the economy. The grouping has come a long way since its inception in 1999. Since 2008, summits have grown bigger and have been held every year with the head of the state participating. Although the initial idea of G20 was to devise policies and frameworks for global financial stability, it is now also a platform for addressing other global concerns. 

It was an excellent opportunity for India, the world’s most populated country and a fast-emerging economy, to showcase its leadership on the world stage. The good thing is that G20 is not just a talk shop; commitments made here are taken forward concretely. For example, in the 2009 G20 summit, a declaration to reduce greenhouse emissions was made. The 2015 Paris Agreement followed this. Last year’s G20 saw commitment to a global minimum of 15% corporate tax, and the roadmap showed good progress.

The relative success of the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) set in motion 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015. These goals are well carved, with targets to be met by 2030. However, with 800 million people still in poverty, about 2 billion people not having access to hygienic and nutritious food, widening inequality, and biodiversity degradation, these targets pose significant challenges to being met on time. 

Post-COVID-19, digital adoption has significantly accelerated. The Delhi Declaration, signed by the members of G20 nations, stresses Digital Public Infrastructure (DPI) and its impact on sustainable development.  However, digitalization is not without its challenges. We still see a growing digital divide geographically and across several societal segments. Furthermore, as more and more people are spending time online for work, business, leisure, and shopping, there are concerns of espionage, invasion of privacy, stealing of information, malware, and cyberattacks in general that affect not just individuals but depending the scale of the attack, large organizations and even nations. Hence, as digitalization is accelerated, countries in the G20 must work collectively to devise a mechanism to keep our society and businesses safe. 

Melinda Gates Foundation defines DPI as a digital network that helps nations provide economic and social services to their people. It also helps in people-to-people connectivity, much like physical infrastructure such as roads and bridges.  The three interconnected systems of DPI – Identity, Payments, and Data exchange, ensure the safe and efficient delivery of high-quality public services. Although ordinary citizens are the primary beneficiaries of DPI, businesses, and governments, benefit significantly as it stimulates the market by creating a level playing field, and public services are brought to every resident efficiently.

As estimated by UNDP, such efficiency could help to accelerate economic growth by up to 33%. With only 1/3rd of the targets Sustainable Development Goals on track, DPI can be a great accelerator to cover its lost ground and meet them before 2030. Hence, payment, knowledge, personal identification and registration, data exchange, and mapping infrastructure could be crucial in supporting SDG acceleration. However, to utilize the payment of the multilayers of this digital infrastructure effectively, a level playing field needs to be developed. This could be attained through open code, standards, protocol, public ownership, and governance.

Take, for example, the India Stack, a set of open-source APIs for building digital services. It includes Aadhaar (ID system), UPI (payment system), financial data and sharing platform aggregators, and Digilocker, the electronic document storage system. Aadhaar has helped millions of Indians access government services efficiently. As such, this has significantly reduced corruption and improved the delivery of public goods. UPI has enabled street vendors to receive instant payments through QR code scans. Many countries now would like to reproduce the UPI success in their countries. The open-source APIs make replication in other nations possible without massive investments.    

About 10% of the world’s population (or 736 million) still lives in extreme poverty. Although there has been a decrease in the poverty percentage, the progress has been uneven. Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic and the Ukraine crisis have increased the number of undernourished people. Countries with weak institutions have difficulty enforcing policies and reforms.

Moreover, inequality among the masses and climate change have exacerbated the situation. SDG 1 (No Poverty) and SDG 2 (Hunger) are the areas where DPI could help reduce poverty and hunger by providing easier access to financial services and information. Online marketplaces could help farmers get fair prices for their produce. Other areas of SDG, such as quality education, gender equality, and well-being, would be fulfilled with DPI deployment. Digital textbooks, for example, could help reduce the cost of education for families, not to mention the environmental benefits. Similarly, DPI would give women more access to government services, aiding gender equality. 

Applying digitalization to achieving various facets of SDGs would undoubtedly lead to better efficiency and productivity in achieving different aspects of SDGs. There is also a need to address the digital divide issue, which can severely deter SDG equity. Some wealthy nations are taking giant leaps in implementing technology. However, the digital divide has kept several African countries and some regions lagging. The role of digitalization, AI, and Digital Transformation would be crucial to bridging this divide. There was a collective endorsement of G20 Principles on Harnessing Data for Development (D4D). The G20 leaders have reiterated their commitment to accelerating SDG progress so that no one is left behind.