How to unleash the potential of digital public infrastructure for children’s rights

Four girls in South Asian dress throw their scarves in the air looking joyous in a field of marigolds: A global push for digital public infrastructure has significant implications for children's rights.

A global push for digital public infrastructure has significant implications for children's rights. Image: UNICEF/2023/Soumi Das

Carolin Frankenhauser
Technology for Development Specialist, UNICEF
Sean Blaschke
Senior Health Specialist, UNICEF
Bhaskar Mishra
Child Protection Specialist, UNICEF
Tomoo Okubo
Social Protection Specialist, UNICEF
Frank van Cappelle
Global Lead, Digital Education, UNICEF
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  • Digital public infrastructure (DPI) can accelerate the sustainable development goals, for example, enabling by financial inclusion and better public service delivery.
  • DPI has implications for children's rights including better social protection, improved access to education and health service delivery.
  • DPI solutions must be designed with a child-centric approach and privacy considerations built in while closing the gap in digital exclusion.

Today’s children live in a “polycrisis,” with one in five children not fully protected against vaccine-preventable diseases, nearly 230 million under-five without proof of legal identity and 1.2 billion children living in countries with complex emergencies. As of 2022, half of the 1.2 billion people living in multidimensional poverty were children. Systemic and holistic solutions are needed to tackle the interconnected challenges children face today.

Inclusive digital public infrastructure (DPI) has been identified as a much-needed accelerator for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and children’s rights. DPI refers to society-wide digital capabilities that aid participation in society by enabling, for example, digital identification, digital payments and data exchange.

Countries such as India, Bangladesh and Estonia are showcasing the potential of DPI for financial inclusion and improved public service delivery: the Government of India estimates that with effective implementation of DPI, it leapfrogged 40 years of development and progress.

Inspired by other countries and fast-tracked by the COVID-19 pandemic, governments worldwide share knowledge and technologies to scale DPI for the SDGs. This global push for DPI has significant implications for children’s rights, as DPI directly affects the lives of children.

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Digital public infrastructure serves children's rights

Children interact with and transition through digital public systems from the day they are born. Their birth is often registered in digital or digitally supported systems; digital systems are used to identify and, in some cases, determine families’ eligibility for social protection payments and digital systems support tracking and management of health services. These systems can improve governments’ ability to provide services to children. At the same time, they also bear risks for children, such as exclusion.

Only a child registered at birth can be systematically identified for routine immunization, social protection payments and school attendance tracking. Consequently, if foundational systems fail to include the most marginalized children, women and families, they can contribute to exclusion.

Examples, where digital identities have been made mandatory to receive vaccinations, food assistance or attend school show how poorly designed DPI can lead to exclusion, especially for vulnerable children such as migrant children and children in remote areas. Inconsistencies in identification and registration records, authentication problems, lack of alternative options or challenges with payment withdrawal due to distance from payment points may all contribute to exclusion.

Child-centred approach to digital public infrastructure

As governments are building DPI, it will therefore be critical that all stakeholders take a child-centred approach from design to implementation, which actively considers the risks, mitigation measures and opportunities of DPI for children’s rights. Practically, this includes the following steps:

Avoid exclusion, especially of vulnerable children

Digital systems are becoming the de facto standard for managing children’s services, so governments must prevent the most vulnerable children from being digitally excluded and further disadvantaged. Including children and parents in digital solutions’ design can ensure they meet their needs.

Meanwhile, barriers preventing families from embracing digital services range from lack of access, affordability, literacy, digital skills to user-centric service design. They must be understood and mitigated for any DPI initiative.

Ensure interoperability

Interoperability – particularly between civil registration and vital statistics (CRVS), health, identity, education and social protection systems – is a key feature of DPI and important for children, although lacking in many countries. The benefits include better social protection and reduced child poverty. For example, in Uzbekistan, UNICEF collaborates with the government and partners to enhance the single registry for social protection, leading to a 75% increase in families receiving cash assistance.

It can also improve equitable access to education by identifying out-of-school children for support. An example is UNICEF’s support to the Ministry of Education in the Maldives to develop the Education Management Information System, cross-checking the data with the Department of National Registry data to identify children not enrolled in school.

Strengthen data governance across systems

Data standards are a prerequisite for data sharing and exchange. Even though standards exist, these are often not shared and implemented across government systems. The lack of data standards inhibits the use of case-level data and the scope and coverage of interoperability.

In addition to standards, data sharing protocols, regulatory frameworks and privacy by design must be in place to protect children’s data. It is important to invest in data harmonization from the start of any DPI-related initiative, as lack of harmonization in early project stages leads to complex interoperability challenges in later stages, requiring significant effort for integration.

Children’s rights in a common framework for DPI

As a common framework for DPI is currently being developed under India’s G20 Presidency, UNICEF is advocating for the importance of highlighting the opportunities for children in the framework.

India’s National Digital Education Architecture (NDEAR) and DIKSHA platform for education – which UNICEF supported – are good examples of the transformative power of DPI, and are part of India’s broader, cross-sectoral vision for DPI. Following India’s example, DPI components for civil registration, education, social protection, and health – ideally integrated and interlinked – should be prominently included and prioritized in any DPI framework.


What is the World Economic Forum doing to improve digital intelligence in children?

The current interest in DPI by donors and governments provides a unique opportunity to unlock the potential of DPI for children. Investing in child-centred, interoperable DPI can help make children visible, close immunization gaps and improve equitable access to social protection and education. More awareness and capacity building around the implications of DPI for children are urgently needed to realize these objectives.

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