The United Nations kickstarts a much-needed multi-stakeholder conversation for safeguarding DPI

By Yogesh Hirdaramani

As countries begin to fast-track the development and implementation of digital public infrastructure (DPI), safeguards must be in place to ensure DPI serves the needs of people first and foremost. GovInsider speaks to representatives from the UN to learn more about the recently-launched DPI Safeguards initiative.

UNDP's DPI Safeguards initiative aims to develop key principles to keep DPI safe and inclusive for everyone. Image: UNDP

This story is part of GovInsider's special report on DPI. Click here to read more of GovInsider's coverage of DPI.

As digital public infrastructure (DPI) begins to gain recognition globally in the discourse on  sustainable development, more countries are looking to adopt the DPI approach. These include Kenya, Ethiopia, and Rwanda, which are accelerating digital identity projects. 


But if these countries do not design these systems with a safe and inclusive approach, they run the risk of worsening inequality, and could even lead to centralised tracking and open the doors to cyber attacks, warns Tech Cabal, an African technology publication.


With this need to mitigate and minimise inherent risks, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Office of the UN Secretary-General’s Envoy on Technology have launched the DPI Safeguards initiative. The initiative aims to work with local communities to develop a safeguards framework to ensure that DPI design and implementation is safe, inclusive, and works for the public good. 


GovInsider speaks to Keyzom Ngodup Massally, Head of Digital Programme, at UNDP’s Chief Digital Office and Mehdi Snene, Senior Advisor on AI and Digital Transformation at the Office of the Secretary-General's Envoy on Technology, to learn more about how the DPI Safeguard Framework being developed can help build DPI that drive trust, equity, and citizen empowerment.

Safe DPI to accelerate sustainable development


DPI initiatives around the world, from digital payments in India to data exchange in Estonia, have shown that interoperable digital systems can improve public and private services, drive sustainable development goals, and address emerging challenges, says Massally. 


What sets DPI apart from conventional digital transformation is its focus on interoperable systems that can connect with each other and be scaled up to tackle societal problems. For example, components of DPI such as digital identity, digital payments, and data exchange were crucial building blocks for helping governments respond to Covid-19, Snene notes.


“DPI goes beyond technology, it’s an approach,” Massally says.


For instance, UNDP worked with the State of Palestine’s Ministry of Justice to build a common case management system for lawyers, justices, and legal aides. 


Even though the State did not initially have a digital identity or payments systems – typically key components of DPI – the solution took a DPI ecosystem approach by integrating e-justice services, and a data exchange platform.


But as countries develop DPI, it is critical to ensure that these infrastructure are inclusive and are not misused, explains Snene. Emerging DPI initiatives also need to account for the diverse voices, contexts, needs, and expectations of citizens.


“The international development space is very well-principled… And while having this common understanding is important, we need to also move beyond the principles themselves to situate them in practical, contextual implementation,” Massally says.


Through conversations with governments, civil society, and other stakeholders, the DPI Safeguards initiative aims to produce a detailed framework by the end of 2024, which curates core safeguarding principles, ways in which these principles can be practically applied, and governance strategies that can uphold the accountability of DPI.


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DPI to enable inclusion, not exclusion


Though countries are investing in technologies, much less attention and resources are being directed towards safeguarding, says Massally.


For example, Ethiopia recently announced that the country will make certain services exclusively available to those enrolled in the country’s digital identity programme, according to local news site Shega.

Keyzom Ngodup Massally, Head of Digital Programme at UNDP’s Chief Digital Office. Image: UNDP

Some argue that it is not an inclusive practice, because it has the potential to leave people out. In 2023, activists told Reuters that the digital identity programme could lead to a heightened risk of racial profiling and misuse of data.


“Inclusive practice is not about making something mandatory when it should be a choice and the individual right of a person,” Massally says.


One way that agencies can remain inclusive is to continue offering physical services, so that people who cannot or do not wish to transact digitally still have the option to access public services in-person, says Snene.


Snene also highlights that it is important for different systems to be connected through secure data exchange. When set up properly, such systems can ensure that agencies cannot profile citizens by pooling together data and that citizens can withhold consent to secondary use of their data. 


The DPI Safeguards initiative aims to pre-empt some of these potential risks and ensure DPI is built with privacy, safety, and inclusivity as a core tenet from the get-go.

Shortening the adoption curve


Supported by UNDP, the 50-in-5 campaign aims to accelerate the DPI journey for countries, by tapping into the learnings and reusable technologies built by other countries. “The conversation and action on safeguards must also accelerate in lockstep,” says Massally.


“The DPI Safeguards initiative is a global, multi-stakeholder conversation on safeguards. Through regular updates and dedicated multi-phased working groups, we are aiming for a comprehensive and adaptable framework.”

Mehdi Snene, Senior Advisor on AI and Digital Transformation at the Office of the Secretary-General's Envoy on Technology

Both Massally and Snene caution that while the conversation on DPI and much-needed safeguards is gaining attention, there is still a lot to be achieved. 


This is particularly true as governments move towards cross-border DPI projects and the application of AI within DPI initiatives. Last October, Bangladesh organised the first summit examining the twin powers of AI and DPI to drive development.


“AI could serve to customise services, detect forms of exclusion, and anticipate demand for future services based on population-level data,” says Snene.


In the longer term, a DPI approach could also help decentralise AI compute power and create more democratic, open networks of AI, adds Massally.