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Co-Develop Spearheads a Global Opportunity for DPI Adoption

Co-Develop is taking on an enormous challenge, “laying the plumbing” to help 50 countries build their own digital public infrastructure (DPI) in the next few years.

One of the topic’s foremost advocates, Co-Develop’s CEO CV Madhukar, has long been involved in shaping DPI policy and projects globally – including years of work within The Rockefeller Foundation’s 17 Rooms initiative.

DPI is a digital approach that enables essential society-wide functions to promote economic and social growth for everyone – not just those who can afford access.

Its immediate uses are many, including emergency payments to climate refugees via cell phones, immediate telehealth and records access, a digital ID that speeds access to social benefits, and more.

“Digital public infrastructure is a smarter way of digitization,” Madhukar said. “It’s laying a digital plumbing that public, private, and government agencies can leverage to better support the welfare of residents and provide economic opportunity for all.”

Co-Develop’s mission: Help countries build inclusive and safe DPI quickly to enable their residents to reap the benefits.

“We have a short window to work with countries implementing DPI because countries are in such an urgent state to build – for instance, government to people payment systems – to support their residents,” shares Madhukar.

“If we don’t bring infrastructure thinking and thoughtful policies into countries now, they will fill in with alternatives that could be detrimental to public welfare in the medium-to-long run.”

What’s DPI Got To Do With It?

In the traditional economy, governments have built roads, electricity, and telephone as infrastructure that are used by all sectors – government and private.

When it comes to the digital economy, in most countries so far, each agency has sought to build its own silos – a wasteful and counterproductive practice – rather than reusing a common infrastructure that could serve society-wide functions.

In countries where DPI has been adopted, the economic impact is immense – for both governments and residents.

For 70 low-and-middle-income countries, implementing DPI could speed up their economic growth by 33 percent and spur advancement for the 1 in 3 adults worldwide who lack access to a bank account.

Of the 166 governments to launch cash-transfer programs during the pandemic, those with some form of DPI were able to provide emergency payments to 51 percent of their populations, while those without only reached 16 percent.

“Many countries we’re working with approach DPI from a use case lens. How do I make farmer subsidies work better? How do I set up a payment system to pay migrant workers or climate refugees? How do I pay health workers more efficiently?”  Madhukar said.

“What we’re really supporting at Co-Develop is helping countries address these cases, but using an infrastructure approach which leverages reusable building blocks. This breaks down silos between agencies and avoids duplication of efforts.”

Co-Develop was created and launched to help countries digitize using infrastructure thinking.

Co-Developing Equitable DPI Together

Co-Develop is a first-of-its-kind philanthropic fund dedicated to helping countries adopt inclusive and safe DPI.

The organization was founded by The Rockefeller Foundation, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Nilekani Philanthropies, and Omidyar Network after collectively working to understand philanthropy’s role in funding DPI adoption.

G2PConnect March event.

Many of these original conversations took place in 17 Rooms, an initiative founded by The Rockefeller Foundation and Brookings Institute focused on advancing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through innovative collaborations and achievable actions.

“17 Rooms provided the foundation for our DPI research. In 2021, we used what we’d learned in 17 Rooms to convene a key group of funders to explore what we could do to help countries adopt DPI. Within several months, we went from deliberating the definition of DPI to putting the seeds in place to launch Co-Develop,” said Nicole Rasul, Innovation Manager at The Rockefeller Foundation.

The 17 Rooms flagship event is held annually on the eve of the U.N. General Assembly in New York City. This year marks the halfway point to achieving the SDGs, making 17 Rooms – and the collaborative solutions it inspires – more important than ever.

Filling In the Gaps With Co-Develop

Government adoption is not enough, Madhukar noted. “Unless we see people in villages and towns saying, ‘I am benefiting from this,’ we’re not succeeding.”

How it works: Co-Develop works closely with several partners – technology providers, development partners, researchers, etc – who then work closely with country governments to help build solutions using infrastructure thinking.

Madhukar speaking at G2P event.

In 2022, the World Bank, UNDP, and other development partners were approached by 50 countries seeking help setting up government-to-people payment (G2P) programs. Now, Co-Develop works closely with these and other partners to help take the infrastructure approach to solving problems.

As an organization, Co-Develop tackles implementing DPI from all angles:

  • Providing technical architecture support to partners through their recently launched, and first of its kind, Center for Digital Infrastructure
  • Educating globally about the benefits of DPI
  • Working with partner organizations to engage with countries to ensure inclusion and safeguards
  • Providing small grants to unlock implementation bottlenecks
  • Engaging in global processes – like this year’s G20 hosted by the government of India where DPI was championed as a key development intervention – with partners

“We are in a unique window in time,” shared Madhukar. “Countries are keen to digitize and do it thoughtfully. We have growing clarity born out of lived experience of how to take the infrastructure approach to digitization, and we have funders and other partners ready to engage.”

In March, Co-Develop and other partners held their first G2PConnect event where they invited countries interested in learning more about doing G2P payments using infrastructure thinking. They expected 7-8 countries to attend, but found themselves in a room of 25, all eager to get help for their unique use cases.

Currently, Co-Develop’s partners are working with several countries to help address challenges using the infrastructure approach in the next few months.

The Next Climate Chapter of DPI

With each successful DPI implementation – India Stack, Estonia’s X-Road, Taiwan’s T-Road, Brazil’s Pix, and more – the benefits of DPI become more clear.

On the eve of this year’s United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), the topic of digital public infrastructure has never been greater – and the role of DPI in climate is a critical component.

This September, The Rockefeller Foundation, Co-Develop, the United Nations Development Programme, and other key partners will convene in New York City to examine how DPI can be best adapted to meet climate needs.

“Climate change and DPI are two domains receiving tremendous amounts of global attention,” said Rasul. “Unsurprisingly, many are looking to determine how DPI can support climate change objectives but there is considerable ambiguity around what exactly this will look like. Working with Co-Develop who has such expertise in this space, and published work already on climate and DPI, is providing us a way through this uncharted landscape.”

With this work in its early stages, the group is working to bring climate experts and DPI practitioners into the same space to talk through use cases.

How do countries create payment support systems for climate refugees? How can countries compensate farmers experiencing drought because of climate change? What are proactive digital programs to help those in areas that will be affected by extreme heat?

“Using infrastructure thinking to build a digital economy is a no-brainer and the right thing to do,” concludes Madhukar. “This can ensure benefits at population scale, ensure smarter usage of financial resources, and lead to massive innovation.”