Development agencies need to change in the digital age | #mediadev | DW | 18.02.2016
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Development agencies need to change in the digital age

Digital transformation is causing development agencies to change their partners and their strategies. In addition, development players should also make sure they’re embracing digital transformation themselves.

Development organizations have long made information and communication technologies (ICTs), such as mobile phones and the Internet, an integral part of their collaborations with partner organizations around the world.

ICTs can be an important element in promoting transparency, making processes and services more democratic and efficient, creating easier means for citizens and governments to communicate with each other, and boosting citizen participation.

But digital technology isn’t a means to an end. Digital transformation has much wider implications and developments agencies are just now beginning to realize the extent of these for their own organizations and work.

Digital transformation is changing how development organizations traditionally operate, in that digital transformation: Challenges internal processes. Changes how organizations work and interact with their partners and beneficiaries. Creates new opportunities and poses new challenges in the design, implementation, running and evaluation of projects. Comes with a set of new political, economical, and social ramifications. Not only do these ramifications need to be assessed beforehand, they also create new demand for the support of projects tackling the potential downsides.

Consequently, those involved in development need to develop new strategies and frameworks to react appropriately to the effects of digital transformation both internally and externally.

Change starts at home

Managing digital transformation internally is not an easy task. Therefore, it’s very important to have support from the top level as well as sufficient resources and strong channels for seeking and distributing expertise.

Today, many development agencies are changing how they operate. It’s no surprise such organizations are often the international agencies of countries which already have strong national IT, e-government or open government strategies.

For example, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) has always been a pioneer in digital development and has long promoted an ICT for Development mainstreaming approach. Today, more and more donor organizations are moving in the same direction. The US aid agency USAID and the UK’s DfID have also established digital strategies to address how they work in today’s environment.

Based on the principles of efficiency and user-centered design, DfID is currently implementing an ambitious digital strategy and reporting openly about the process on its blog. This is a pioneering example although it is still too early to assess the effectiveness and long-term sustainability of the new strategy throughout the organization.

Openness, transparency and accessibility

Traditionally, development agencies have been relatively closed institutions with little transparency about their operations. In the globalized digital age, however, people's needs and expectations have fundamentally shifted. Digital technology is transforming how people do business and engage in politics, how they learn and communicate, and how they satisfy demands. At least to some extent, information about and access to government services has been democratized.

Development organizations aren't exempt from these expectations. Stakeholders and partners want to know how an agency’s money is spent and how its projects are implemented and evaluated.

Now, partly in response to the open data and open government movements, an increasing number of development agencies are starting to open up and publish data about what they fund through the International Aid Transparency Index or on their own websites.

Examples of these include Sweden's aid transparency platform,, DfiD's Development Tracker and the transparency portal of Germany's Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ).

To make accountability a reality, however, organizations need to go beyond simply publishing data sets. Since data is only valuable when it’s used, agencies need to engage the community and analyse stakeholder needs in order to encourage actual use of their data.

If done well, this will increase transparency, which in turn will make development activities more efficient and boost the active involvement of stakeholders.

Sometimes, just making services simpler to use can increase accessibility. For example, the UK's general site includes a search function for international development funding. In addition, as part of its digital strategy, DfiD encourages its staff members in the field to communicate about their work via Twitter.

In countries where Twitter is widely used, it can serve as a tool to increase an organization’s visibility and create better access for local stakeholders (for instance, Kenyan village chief Francis Kariouki communicates to citizens via Twitter).

Better value for money

Silicon Valley’s mantra of lean processes, prototyping and embracing failure (“fail fast”) is starting to echo down the hallways of development organizations, where leaner operations and space for new approaches are urgently needed.

Aid agencies have spent billions on development in the past decades. But amid criticism that money has been squandered on ill-conceived projects, there is now a push for more effective, efficient spending.

Innovation hubs, internal innovation competitions and other ways of fostering new approaches can improve internal processes. USAID has taken the radical approach of wanting to transform into a development enterprise. To help achieve this, it launched its Global Development Lab in 2014 to facilitate innovative, human-centered ideas and concepts.

The belief that development organizations themselves can find the best solutions for large challenges is also fading. New frameworks now support co-creation with new and, at times, unconventional partners. For example, the Global Innovation Fund, founded by USAID, DfID, Sida and others, allows small projects and interested parties from any sector to access low-threshold funding schemes. UNICEF recently launched a new venture capital Innovation Fund to invest in open source technology startups which benefit children.

Of course, development projects can't be compared tech startups. There are no easy fixes to solving the big challenges of development and we shouldn't confuse technical challenges with complex and structural challenges that need patience, consistence and groundwork (highly recommended in this context is Lisa Raftree's, If I ran the innovation zoo). On the contrary, we need to bear in mind that quick implementations or rapid prototyping can have unintended and serious implications in a development context.

Don't reinvent the wheel

Innovations are processes, not products. Therefore, a call for innovative approaches isn’t necessarily about creating something new or distributing as many products as possible. Rather, it's about developing new paradigms and adjusting and improving the way we do things and what we use to do those things.

Often this means copying from the best rather than inventing something new. There are fantastic open source tools out there that any development organizations can build on. For instance, the transparency portals mentioned above can be replicated using the code available on GitHub. The same applies to an employee quiz used by DfID to assess its staff’s digital literacy skills.

Additionally, rather than worshiping large-scale approaches, innovation in development sometimes implies funding bottom-up projects (see further thoughts on this idea by Ken Banks), or supporting solutions that can only be replicated on a limited scale but show enormous impact in their specific region.

Improving projects using standards and principles

This directly links to the way products, programs and projects are designed. Organizations need to focus more on the actual needs and circumstances of potential beneficiaries and local ecosystems – and then share their experiences with others.

Keeping in mind that the user is supposed to be at the center, services need to be accessible to everyone. This could mean using a feature phone in a region where smartphones aren’t widely used (read how the United Nation's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs tested the best channel for communicating with Syrian refugees in a refugee camp), or not using technology at all in places where offline methods are more effective (here's an example).

There are many other ways development organizations can benefit from the experiences of others, such as by consulting the Principles for Digital Developments, guidelines drawn up by a variety of organizations, NGOs and individuals with practical experience working in the sector.

At the same time, there are still many missing standards – for instance, better standards to protect the privacy of project beneficiaries. Engine Room started an important debate by hosting a website on the responsible use of data in development. Oxfam, which consulted with Engine Room, is one of the first international NGOs to develop a responsible data policy.

Assessing the political implications of digital development

For too long, technocratic perspectives have dominated the debates surrounding digital development. It was long assumed, for example, that mobile phones or new fiber optic infrastructure were neutral tools to support development endeavors.

Today, we know we also need to assess the political implications of projects and programs we deliver, as well as look at the direct risks which could result from those endeavors. For example, when we think about the case of Open Data principles in the context of support for journalists around the world, we need to implement safeguards to keep their data safe.

A human rights-based approach should always guide our work. We need to protect the right to privacy of people working with digital tools. We need to assess the potential risks of using digital technology, both internally and by partner organizations.

These considerations – not the idea of a fancy new tool – should dominate our decisions for or against a new application or service. If not, we run the danger that aid could enhance surveillance practices (as illustrated in this report by Privacy International).

Fortunately, development organizations are not alone with this task. Digital rights activists such as the Tactical Technology Collective or Engine Room are helpful partners in establishing responsible data use. But governance structures, such as external advisory boards or data protection officers, can also help to assess the ethical implications of the work we do.

Julia Manske (@juka_ma) is a Program Manager in the „European Digital Agenda“ Programme at stiftung neue verantwortung (SNV), a Berlin-based think tank. Currently she works on the project „Open Data & Privacy“ focusing on the responsible collection, use and disclosure of (government) data.

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