Rather than simply building DPI building blocks, countries that are looking to follow India’s DPI Approach should look to develop DPI solutions that leverage individual elements of the DPI stack in an interoperable manner.
With the Leaders Summit taking place later this week, India’s presidency of the G20 is fast drawing to a close. In anticipation, commentators have already begun to critically examine all that India has (or has not) achieved in its presidency. While they have expressed disappointment over the failure to secure consensus among member countries on issues like the war in Ukraine and climate change, there is near-universal acknowledgement of India’s success in raising global awareness of the role that digital public infrastructure (DPI) can play in addressing development challenges across sectors of an economy.
Various news articles have commended the Digital Economy Working Group (DEWG) for securing the agreement of all 20 countries on the need for a framework for DPI and establishment of a global repository of DPI. While not yet public, similar success has been achieved in the Global Partnership for Financial Inclusion track, which will soon release a report setting out its policy recommendations for advancing financial inclusion and productivity gains through DPI. These achievements are testimony to the more muscular approach that India has demonstrated in all the negotiations during its presidency.
The DPI Agenda
If you come to think of it, last year this time few even knew what DPI meant. Most believed that India’s success in rolling out digital infrastructure was solely on account of the size of its population and the strength of its IT sector. That perception has now changed irrevocably. Not only are countries around the world—both among the G20 nations as well as those outside that exclusive club—convinced of the value of this approach, there is widespread interest to see how these systems can be deployed in economies large and small.
Now that we have convinced the world of the benefits of the DPI approach, however, countries large and small are looking to us to help them build DPI in their own domestic contexts. The ministry of information technology has executed a number of memorandums of understanding (MoUs) with different countries to share with them the IndiaStack approach, while others have reached out to our embassies and missions around the world to help them enlist the institutions that power our DPI infrastructure (NPCI, UIDAI, etc) to deploy one or the other of these population-scale digital ecosystems within their countries.
Everyone, it seems, wants to have their own DPIs, but no one knows exactly how to go about building it.
India’s DPI success is often associated with the population-scale digital identity, payments and data-sharing systems that are the most visible symbols of the success of this approach. More often than not, when countries say they need help, what they mean is they want advice on how to implement these systems in their respective countries. While any number of private vendors can supply an identity, unless payments or data-sharing systems are designed right, they will not work at population scale and deliver the kind of societal benefits that are the real success behind India’s DPI approach.
Take direct benefits transfers (DBT), for example. During Covid, India was able—in the period between 24 March and 17 April alone—to transfer ₹275 billion directly to the accounts of over 110 million beneficiaries. This helped some of the poorest in India tide over the consequences of what was allegedly the world’s harshest lockdown. Had we not already had digital infrastructure in place that could be rapidly reconfigured to serve this purpose, it would have been impossible to make this happen.
DBT is a perfect example of a solution put together using core DPI building blocks—combining them together to achieve a given result. Aadhaar provides the identity layer that, when connected with subsidy schemes, identifies an individual as being eligible for financial support. Using an account mapper like an Aadhaar-enabled payment system, it is possible to link the bank account of an individual to which money can be directly transferred. Neither element would, of itself, have been sufficient. But because they have been designed so that it is relatively trivial to make them inter-operate with each other in this manner, it was relatively simple to craft an effective DBT solution.
The DPI approach is more than simply rolling out individual building blocks in your country. It is about designing them so that they can be interlocked together into innovative solutions that achieve the objectives that each county has for its people. In other words, in order to reap the full benefits of the DPI approach, countries need to think beyond simply establishing the building blocks that everyone talks about. Instead, they need to think about solutions they want to fashion in order to provide the various services their people really need.
As we help countries embark on their DPI journeys, we need to reframe our offering in these terms. Rather than simply providing them the basic building blocks of identity, payments and data-sharing, we should offer them design solutions to the problems that most urgently need solving. In the process, we can ensure that the core DPI elements we use for these solutions are interoperable and reusable, so that not only will we have solved their most pressing requirements, we would also have set up an extensible infrastructure that they can re-deploy in a number of different ways.