There are 9 principles for digital development. Now what?

A literacy app hackathon hosted by Beyond Access and Save the Children in Ethiopia. Through a consultative process with more than 100 organizations, nine principles for digital development have emerged. How should organizations be implementing them? Photo by: Beyond Access / CC BY-SA

“Was there a request for application or request for proposal in the last year that asked you to build a reusable platform for multiple purposes across sectors?” Ann Mei Chang, chief innovation officer and the executive director of the U.S. Global Development Lab, asked attendees of an FHI 360-hosted digital development event on Monday in Washington, D.C.

No one in a room of professionals from 156 organizations raised their hand.

Rather than seeking and rewarding investment in platforms and infrastructure, development encourages one-off projects by relying on hackathons and contests. The best solicitations out there are, as Chang pointed out, focused on addressing an immediate problem for a specific sector in a particular geography.

As a fairly obvious result, systems are developed in silos — by sector, geography, or organization. And instead of communicating, they duplicate information and make it difficult to aggregate data. Chang referenced Sean Blaschke’s now infamous map of the maddening number — more than 80 — of mobile health pilots in Uganda for different disease sectors. The Ministry of Health in Uganda finally called a moratorium on mHealth pilots, a situation that’s been coined “pilotitis” by those in the information and communication technology for development, or ICT4D, space.

Donor agencies and multilateral organizations have been discussing how to spread best practices in the use of ICT tools as part of development programming for at least a decade, which led to UNICEF Innovation Principles of 2009, the Greentree Principles of 2010 and the U.K. Design Principles, among others.

Now, through a yearlong, consultative process with 500 individuals representing more than 100 organizations, those best practices have been refined further into nine principles for digital development, launched officially at Monday’s D.C. event:

1. Design with the user.
2. Understand the existing ecosystem.
3. Design for scale.
4. Build for sustainability.
5. Be data driven.
6. Use open standards, open data, open source and open innovation.
7. Reuse and improve.
8. Address privacy and security.
9. Be collaborative.

Already, more than 50 organizations have officially endorsed the digital principles — some with relative ease, as described by Steve Hellen, ‎director of ICT4D and geographic information systems for Catholic Relief Services.

Hellen presented the principles to the CRS executive leadership team a few months ago, and “they sailed right through in one quick discussion,” he said. Shortly afterward, CRS officially ingrained them in a refreshed ICT4D strategy.

What makes the principles attractive and understandable is their simplicity, Hellen told Devex.

“If you’re looking at them and you’re not a technologist, you can take out the word digital and just call them “principles for development,” he said. “It’s still an effective message.”

The digital program at CRS is now developing guidance and self-assessments that field project managers can use to plan the application of the principles to individual initiatives. The U.K. Department for International Development, meanwhile, has taken the principles further than most donors as of yet by folding them into procurement processes, communicating already with key suppliers and requiring them to show how they adhere to the guidelines.

While DfID supports the principles, the agency hopes to officially endorse them when they release a new digital strategy this summer, according to Digital Service Lead Frances Sibbet. First, they still have a few questions and critiques — which are welcome, according to Adele Waugaman, founder and managing director of Catalyst Advisory and a recognized thought leader on the role of technology in health and development.

The principles are meant to be a guide and are meant to be questioned, she told Devex. And while they appear straightforward in text or at a conceptual level, they “quickly become a lot more complex when you try to implement in different environments with technology that is always changing via institutions that weren’t necessarily built to work this way,” Waugaman told Devex.

The full “From Principle to Practice: Implementing the Principles for Digital Development” report provides insight and analysis into implementers’ thought process when they approach the principles, common barriers they’ve faced and suggestions to overcome them, but it isn’t the end of the conversation.

In fact the conversation to date has been with donors first, then implementing partners and consulting shops.

Waugaman can imagine a new phase of consultation built around local governments and communities where these organizations operate, as well as the user experience — perhaps the field worker of a large international NGO or the end beneficiary of a text messaging service designed to deliver reproductive health information to women in rural communities.

“We haven’t had the scope and bandwidth to have those conversations,” she said, which will now be up to the Digital Impact Alliance to move forward.

The Digital Impact Alliance, which will be hosted by the United Nations Foundation, also emerged from the process of creating the digital development principles. It’s where the principles will live and where CEO Kate Wilson, now six days into her job, will work to accelerate collective efforts of government, industry and development organizations to achieve a more inclusive digital economy for the underserved in emerging markets.

Though there have been early champions, many organizations are still unsure of whether to endorse, adopt or critique the principles.

Waugaman hopes feedback includes a little bit of everything, but Jacob Korenblum, president and CEO of Souktel Digital Solutions, presented a harsher argument for delivering on the practice of the principles in the form of past failed commitments by the larger global development community — like the 79 percent of $2.3 billion in pledges not committed after the 2014 Syria donor conference.

“What's the use of digital principles if they aren't adopted or enforced?” he asked.

To avoid the likelihood of organizations noncollaboratively tacking principles on to sweeten their bids before submitting, Korenblum suggested annual membership reviews, recognition of top adopters through an awards ceremony (suggesting the name “The Digies”) and rotating leadership and knowledge management roles.

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About the author

  • Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is an Associate Editor for Devex. Based on the U.S. West Coast, she works with Devex's team of correspondents and editors around the world, with a particular focus on gender. She previously worked as Devex’s Southeast Asia correspondent based in Bangkok, covering disaster and crisis response, resilience, women’s rights, and climate change throughout the region. Prior to that, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.

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