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Digital Platforms as Development Infrastructure

20 April 2021 1 comment
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I’m going to argue here that digital platforms should be understood as development infrastructure[1].

In recent years, there’s been a renewed emphasis on the value and role of infrastructure in international development[2].  Official development assistance for infrastructure has therefore risen but there remains a significant infrastructure financing gap[3].

It may be something of an exaggeration to say, as Paul Collier does, that “the west’s aid agencies ‘pulled out of infrastructure long ago, and started financing social stuff instead. That’s important, but there’s a need to get back to financing the basic [physical and organisational] infrastructure’ because ‘without it countries can’t develop’”[4].  However, while western agencies are still funding infrastructure, it is certainly true that China particularly has stepped in to try to fill the gap left by lack of western funding for development infrastructure; especially via its Belt-and-Road initiative[5].  This gap-filling includes digital infrastructure.

When we think of digital and infrastructure, the focus has been on telecommunications: fibre-optic cabling, mobile networks and the like.  But digital platforms should also be seen as infrastructure.  As development processes digitise and dematerialise, platforms become the “infra-structure” for society: lying beneath and increasingly forming the foundation and site for economic, social and political activity.

Platforms store development assets, just like a grain silo.  Platforms transport development assets, just like a road or railway.  Platforms import and export development assets, just like a port.  Platforms enable transactions of development assets, just like a marketplace.

Digital platforms thus perform the developmental functions not just of physical but also of institutional infrastructure.  For example, as marketplaces, they combine within themselves the institutional infrastructure functions of participant aggregation and certification, transaction facilitation, payment and regulation[6].

The Chinese state has recognised this.  Its Digital Silk Road initiative funds traditional digital infrastructure but it also encompasses support for the spread of Chinese digital platforms to low- and middle-income economies of the global South[7].  These platforms are then becoming a key part of national economic infrastructure in these countries[8]. Will western governments recognise platforms’ infrastructural importance to development?  And, if so, how should and will they respond?


[1] Graphic: https://e.huawei.com/en/publications/global/ict_insights/201810161444/analysts/201906101000

[2] Bhattacharya, A., Romani, M. & Stern, N. (2012) Infrastructure for Development: Meeting the Challenge, London School of Economics; Donaubauer, J., Meyer, B., & Nunnenkamp, P. (2016) Aid, infrastructure, and FDIWorld Development78, 230-245; DFID (2020) International Development Infrastructure Commission Recommendations Report, Department for International Development, UK

[3] UNCTAD (2020) Official international assistance plays a key role in financing for sustainable development, SDG Pulse

[4] Hellowell, M. & Wakdok, S. (2021) Disaster relief, Prospect, March, 48-51

[5] Huang, Y. (2016) Understanding China’s Belt & Road initiativeChina Economic Review40, 314-321.

[6] Heeks, R., Eskelund, K., Gomez-Morantes, J. E., Malik, F., & Nicholson, B. (2020) Digital Labour Platforms in the Global South: Filling or Creating Institutional Voids?, Working Paper no.86, Centre for Digital Development, University of Manchester, UK

[7] Bora, L. Y. (2020) Challenge and perspective for Digital Silk RoadCogent Business & Management7(1), 1804180; Choudary, S.P. (2020) China’s country-as-platform strategy for global influence, TechStream, 19 Nov

[8] Keane, M., & Yu, H. (2019) A digital empire in the making: China’s outbound digital platformsInternational Journal of Communication13, 4624-4641.

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