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The G20 presidency and the future of the Digital Public Infrastructure agenda: From India to Brazil and beyond

Expert Comment

Written by Stephanie Diepeveen, Cathal Long, Nicholas Gates

Image credit:Gayatri Maholtra - Unsplash

The G20 Presidency and the future of the Digital Public Infrastructure Agenda: Reflections from a discussion with experts, academics and practitioners

The showcasing of its digital public infrastructure (DPI), the India Stack, during its 2023 G20 presidency has promoted new discussions about state capacity in the digital era, including debates over India’s vision of DPI.

With the gavel for the G20 Presidency now passing from India to Brazil, ODI hosted a closed door roundtable in January 2024, with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to reflect on what we learned during India’s G20 Presidency and consider what might come next for DPI as a global, regional and domestic policy agenda. The roundtable brought together academics and experts, foundations, civil society and private sector actors who have been thinking and working on DPI to consider two broad areas of shared concern:

  • The DPI Agenda and Global Geopolitics: What is the broader geopolitical context for the development and deployment of DPI that we should consider? How has the recent Indian G20 presidency shaped the DPI agenda? What can we expect on this agenda from a Brazilian G20 presidency in 2024 followed by a South African presidency in 2025?
  • The State of the DPI Ecosystems: What should we make of the role for public and private sector actors in partnering together to build DPI? What should be the role of think tanks such as ODI and other civil society organisations in helping to shape this agenda?

This piece reflects on the key points of discussion raised at the roundtable. It does not represent the views of any participant or ODI. Rather, it aims to contribute to wider discussions about DPI by focusing specifically on the geopolitics that surround the agenda, and the role of multilateral forums – especially the G20 – in its governance and implementation across contexts. While intergovernmental debates over DPI are unfolding across multiple forums, notably the UN’s Global Digital Compact and looking forward to the UN Summit of the Future, this roundtable focused first on the G20 given the key role it played in bringing DPI to global attention in 2023.

What is DPI and what does it promise?

Generally, DPI refers to “society-wide, digital capabilities” that enable “participation in society and markets as a citizen, entrepreneur, and consumer in a digital era”. As context for discussion, DPI was considered in relation to three areas of core infrastructure: authentication, payments and data exchange.

DPI, as promoted around India’s G20 Presidency, is not the only approach to digital authentication, payments and exchange used by governments. However, it is distinct in its origins within the Global South, where the agenda appears driven by multiple concerns around existing alternatives to digital infrastructure:

  1. A concern for digital infrastructure models that can scale up in lower- and middle-income contexts where financing is constrained.
  2. A concern for ownership and development models for digital infrastructure that protect sovereignty and the economic development of countries in the Global South, and avoid monopolisation by a few existing tech giants from the US or China.
  3. A concern for digital infrastructure that is inclusive and supportive of people’s rights, with discussions over the risks and benefits of different approaches to digital authentication, payments and exchange

Looking back: DPI and India’s G20 Presidency

Shared authentication, payments and data exchange infrastructure did not only – or necessarily – begin with India. Nevertheless, India has been at the forefront of translating its own experience into a global agenda through the promotion of its own vision as an alternative/competing model. Thus, India’s G20 presidency served as an opportunity to help bring attention to DPI globally.

The roundtable reflected on how India was able to get DPI onto the New Delhi Leaders’ Declaration. Insights from India’s experience about the value of the G20 as a forum for pushing a global agenda included:

  1. An opportunity to help shift leadership to the Global South: The sequencing of presidencies from Indonesia, India, now Brazil and next year, to South Africa has provided an opportunity for countries in the Global South to develop and sustain a common agenda.
  2. More discussion, less binding outcomes: The G20 decisions are not legally binding. This can be an opportunity for pushing a new global agenda. The lack of clear enforcement can lower the stakes for countries in considering or expressing different views. This allows for more openness which is valuable for agendas that are novel or where countries are hesitant to take a position.
  3. Process around and initiatives beyond the G20 Summit: India’s G20 created space for research publications and collaborations, for example around the T20. It also led to the launch of a social impact fund to advance DPI in the Global South.

Looking forward: DPI, and Brazil and South Africa’s G20 Presidencies

Brazil: Situating DPI within other global challenges

A few participants reflected on the DPI agenda from their engagement with the early stages of Brazil’s G20. They indicated a desire to work with the India presidency to carry forward some of their common priorities, while also reflecting on some of the specificities of Brazil’s priorities and experiences around digital infrastructure, including Pix payments and gov.br.

This far, Brazil’s G20 presidency and its official engagement groups seem to be framing DPI around overarching priorities: the climate crisis, inequality and poverty, and with a commitment to inclusion and democracy. While Brazil’s digital agenda is still uncertain, possible areas of focus include:

  • Exploring the links between DPI and digital public goods, as well as in relation to innovation in AI.
  • Enabling leadership of think tanks and civil society from throughout the Global South, within and beyond Brazil, in discussions about DPI.

In this, several areas of convergence and/or continuity appear from India to Brazil: around Global South leadership, and around inclusive and equitable development. Equally, the roundtable indicated the importance of giving attention to how different countries and actors approach broader concepts like inclusion and democracy, indicating that while Brazil and India’s presidencies might share a general commitment to both, their areas of emphasis differ.

South Africa: an uncertain agenda

While participants agreed it is too early to speculate around South Africa’s priorities for its G20, especially this early and with upcoming elections in South Africa in 2024, they nonetheless reflected on some of the broader issues and/or themes that might be likely to shape future priorities:

  • The likely role that inequality will continue to play as a key concern around the digital economy and digital development. This includes considering how foundational inequalities intersect with, and shape, digital inequalities. This could include inequality of opportunity through DPI.
  • The importance of attention to security and sovereignty, including reflecting on illicit financial flows and crime, as well as IP law, data localisation and data security, and how these issues arise across different country contexts.

Key issues going forward

Throughout the discussion, key issues and questions emerged about DPI at the country-level, and the role of the G20 in promoting an equitable, rights-based and development-focused agenda for DPI.

  1. Increasingly visible within Brazil’s G20 agenda, DPI is considered within the context of other global challenge areas, raising questions about the potential opportunities of DPI for other global priorities. What do different approaches to DPI mean for inequality, climate mitigation and adaptation, and human rights? What does increasing global attention to AI innovation mean for discussions over DPI? How and in what contexts can DPI support safe, secure and equitable AI innovation?
  2. Taking forward the DPI agenda globally requires more attention to DPI from different country perspectives, especially financially constrained contexts. Do states have the capacity to manage the implementation processes, partnerships and governance structures required for DPI to be effective? A DPI agenda oriented to inclusive and equitable outcomes requires interrogating implementation and design from different country perspectives. This is especially important as DPI is being considered across diverse countries, e.g. across sub-Saharan Africa.
  3. There are ongoing narrative over DPI in global forums, with a lack of consensus still in how DPI is talked about and understood across countries, and private, public and civil society actors. DPI is assessed according to different aims, such as rights, access and service delivery, and/or innovation, which are not mutually exclusive. The G20, as demonstrated by India’s presidency, presents an opportunity for these ‘narrative battles’ to be debated, including through its official engagement groups which should include channels to bring civil society from different countries into discussions.
  4. Underpinning these different narratives and foreign policy agendas around DPI that continue within and across countries, the roundtable discussion pointed to the need for more evidence and attention to the impact and outcomes of DPI. The DPI agenda can easily fall into a technology-first approach, with a focus on setting up the infrastructure to enable diverse outcomes but without attention necessarily to the political economy and governance factors important to enabling those outcomes. There are some initiatives in place to enable a focus on governance, like UNDP’s Model Governance Frameworks for DPI. Further, there needs to be attention to both political and economic outcomes, e.g. economic development and innovation, democratic processes, value and risk distribution, and human rights. Attention to DPI safeguards is one way to bring attention to different outcomes, especially safety, trust and inclusivity. What are the governance requirements and guardrails important for DPI to support these different outcomes?