Davos Agenda

'Two-thirds of child-related SDGs are off-pace to meet targets': Here's why we must invest in digital public infrastructure now

Children's rights around the world can be boosted by investing in digital public infrastructures

Children's rights around the world can be boosted by investing in digital public infrastructures Image: © UNICEF/UNI401309/Viet Hung

Fui Meng Liew
Chief Digital Centre of Excellence, UNICEF
Friederike Schüür
Chief of Data Strategy and Data Governance, United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF)
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Davos Agenda

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  • 2023 marks the halfway point for achieving the United Nations' sustainable development goals (SDGs) and an opportunity to assess and recalibrate our efforts to realize the rights of every child, everywhere.
  • Digital public infrastructure has been identified as a key transition required for accelerating SDG action and results for children by 2030.
  • Investments in digital public infrastructure and the open-source communities that can enable it can catalyse more and better data-enabled results for children by 2030.

2023 marks the halfway point for achieving the United Nations' sustainable development goals (SDGs) and an opportunity to assess and recalibrate our efforts to realize the rights of every child, everywhere.

With only seven years to go, two-thirds of child-related indicators are off-pace to meet their targets, according to a new UNICEF report, For Every Child a Sustainable Future. If recent progress continues, only 60 countries, home to just 25% of the child population, will have met their targets by 2030, leaving around 1.9 billion children in 140 countries behind.

The world today looks unlikely to achieve the ambitious goals we set for children in 2015. The COVID-19 pandemic, climate change and an increase in conflicts and economic crises are increasing inequalities and setting us back years. The world, for example, is back at hunger levels not seen since 2005, and food prices remain higher in more countries than in the period from 2015 to 2019. While in education, data shows that 600 million children and adolescents are not acquiring foundational reading and math skills. The pandemic worsened the situation, likely resulting in 11 million additional ten-year-olds lacking foundational skills.

Against this backdrop, the United Nations Secretary-General has called for a Rescue Plan for People and Planet, urging all stakeholders to accelerate their efforts to achieve the SDGs by 2030. This rescue plan recognizes the importance of timely and high-quality data underpinning all SDG acceleration efforts. In fact, according to the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data, every $1 invested in stronger data systems will lead to a $32 economic return, in effect, a data dividend.

Similarly, digital public infrastructure, referring to foundational society-wide digital capabilities that include data interoperability and exchange, has been identified as a key transition required for accelerating SDG action and results for children by 2030.

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Unlocking the data dividend for children

Unlocking the data dividend for children and scaling up digital public infrastructure for the SDGs are two interlinked and mutually reinforcing objectives. Digital public infrastructure can increase resilience and enable innovation, and by creating better, timelier and interoperable administrative data, it can also help unlock the data dividend for children. Fundamentally, a digital public infrastructure is about enabling data to flow seamlessly across sectors and systems, thereby enabling data-driven decision-making and policies.

The importance of better data for children's rights cannot be overstated. Data from civil registration and vital statistics (CRVS) systems that track the birth of children, for example, is needed to measure 12 of the 17 SDGs and 67 indicators.

Only 17 of the 47 child-related SDG targets have enough data for reliable monitoring. Around 50% of these 47 SDG targets across more than 190 countries have no data.

Yet, disaggregated, timely and accurate data is at the core of designing and implementing child-centric policies and programmes that understand and respond to the complex realities of children in polycrisis.

Despite its importance, the data ecosystem for children's rights faces various challenges. On the country level, critical government datasets often lack quality and are not openly available or sufficiently disaggregated. Only 73% of countries, territories and areas register at least 90% of births, for instance. Furthermore, administrative data, or data collected as part of the delivery of public services, is often disconnected across sectors such as health, education, etc., with an exclusive focus on sectoral goals and outcomes. In addition, the quality and maturity of data systems often differ substantively by sector.

The corresponding lack of interoperability is a key challenge for switching from a sector-by-sector view of the child towards a holistic and child-centric perspective to policy, programme design and monitoring. Strengthening administrative data records thus becomes critical for supporting the rescue plan for people and the planet.

Strong and inclusive digital public infrastructure can address many of the above challenges. Specifically, this can support data ecosystems through three key features:

1. Digital public infrastructures encode standards that improve data quality and interoperability. The foundational digital public infrastructure data exchange layer is based on standards that enable seamless data sharing based on consent networks.

2. Digital public infrastructures incentivize innovator communities to build (data) interoperable solutions. By design, digital public infrastructure creates the foundations for innovation in the ecosystem. It incentivizes the creation of interoperable and open solutions to be built on top of it, thereby strengthening administrative data and its interoperability with other kinds of data, opening even more use cases.

3. Digital public infrastructures also give control of data to governments and citizens. Often, it is built using open-source software or digital public goods. In these cases, it ensures that governments maintain ownership of their data. Made available as open government data (OGD), such data enables research and trends assessments across sectors. As it is increasingly recognized that certain high-value datasets have to be openly available for creators of value-added services and applications, this capability is key for tackling challenges for children and beyond.

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Investing in digital public infrastructure

Early investment in digital public infrastructures can also reduce the high cost and complexity of creating data interoperability and consolidating systems at later stages.

Like all systems that collect, store or process children’s data, these initiatives must follow best practices for data governance and data protection by design. As outlined in UNICEF’s Responsible Data For Children principles and Data Manifesto, for example.

Encouraging stakeholder collaboration

Unlocking the data dividend for children through digital public infrastructure requires better collaboration between national statistical offices, digital transformation ministries and agencies, as well as development practitioners in digital transformation and data sectors. Bringing together the various communities that contribute to the data for children's ecosystem and digital public infrastructure, including academic institutions, civil society organizations and engaged communities and individuals, is equally important.

More efforts are needed to strengthen the national registers and databases that countries need to truly make a difference for children, ranging from CRVS to health management, education and child protection information systems.

UNICEF’s Administrative Data Maturity Model can serve as a starting point to map the status of the core national administrative data systems needed to enable outcomes for children. The upcoming 2023 SDG Summit and the 2024 Summit of the Future provide critical opportunities for governments and other stakeholders to renew their commitments to strengthening data ecosystems and identify key investments to accelerate SDG progress for children until 2030. Investments in digital public infrastructure and the open-source communities that can enable it can catalyse more and better data-enabled results for children by 2030.

The year 2030 may be around the corner, but if we act now, there is still time to keep the promise we made to children around the world. We believe that investing in digital public infrastructure now can be catalytic for more and better data-enabled results for children.

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Davos AgendaSustainable Development
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