Doing development in a digital world, and what does this mean for Practical Action?


May 3rd, 2018

Practical Action has recently initiated a discussion – involving staff from the head office, and regional and country offices (RCOs) as well as Matt Haikin – on the subject of doing development in a digital world. What and how Practical Action can play role in this new paradigm?

Many digital technologies have already been widely adopted in (global) development. Mobile data collection and dashboard, for example, are now omnipresent. Multi-channel communication, such as a website, mobile phone and social media are used simultaneously to reach target audiences. Emerging technologies, such as big data and AI, have been tested to predict disease outbreaks.

The broader development benefits of digital technologies or digital dividends, however, is unevenly distributed (see picture). In many parts of the world people who don’t have access to the internet nor digital skills are unable to reap their benefits. Women, in particular, are being left behind in the digital revolution. From the project perspective, the concerns about the scale and sustainability in ICT4D, as well as in the broader development sector, remain acute.

 

Why digital dividends are not spreading rapidly—and what can be done (source: World Development Report 2016: Digital Dividends)

 

DFID Digital Strategy 2018 to 2020 acknowledges the potential of digital technologies “to revolutionise the lives of the poor, unlock development and prosperity, and accelerate progress towards the Global Goals”. It lays out the strategy for achieving those ambitious objectives. Though slightly late in the game – for example USAID launched its digital strategy in 2014 and SIDA – in 2005 – the DFID digital strategy is nevertheless equally important, because it will impact the development sector especially in the UK and its priority countries.

As digital technologies come out of age, NGOs are adopting new ways of working, increasing investments into digital technologies, building their capacities, conducting research and participating in digital policy debates. NGOs which have the skills and capacity are indeed more prepared for the rapid changes in the sector. They also have the ability to assess and mitigate digital risks. Across the sector, we’ve also seen leadership playing important role for the success of digital technologies intervention.

Practical Action has aspiring goal “to transform the way technology is being used to improve the lives of poor people”. Digital technologies is inevitably to be part of it. What Practical Action can do to achieve this objective? In the process of the discussion mentioned above, several suggestions emerged:

  • A clear organisation strategy is required for integrating ICT4D across the organisation. What is our core proposition in ICT4D? Who are our target audiences and how can we reach them effectively? How can we align the organisation strategy with the government policies and regulations? Should we join coalitions like Data4SDGs, Internet Governance Forum, Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition and Alliance for Affordable Internet, and sign up to the Principles for Digital Development and Responsible Data practice, for example? Then the questions around availability of resources in term of time, financial and personnel.
  • Building capacity of staff members in the head office and RCOs. What is the organisation capacity to realise the benefits of digital technologies? Should we to provide staff members at all levels with digital literacy and data literacy skills? How can we reduce the skills gap in RCOs?
  • Providing technical support for staff members implementing ICT4D projects on the ground. Currently, we use the “community of practice” approach for sharing learning internally. Dedicated technical support may be required in the future. Do we need more hybrid ICT4D roles, i.e. those who possess understanding and skills in digital technologies and development, in RCOs? Or should we establish ICT4D central team to support operations in RCOs? Would hybrid structures and management models – halfway between centralised standards and local and flexible structures – be more suitable?
  • Improving the way we use digital technologies in projects. The application of digital technologies in DRR, WASH and Agriculture has delivered mixed results so far. How can we systematise and standardise our ICT4D approach? Can we adopt a technology principle to minimise the risks and improve project results? How can we ensure our digital solutions are widely shared and replicated?
  • Adopting digital technologies for measuring project performance. Monitoring and Evaluation is an area where digital technologies add value. In the past, we used different data collection platforms for research and M&E purposes. Have we identified pros and cons of these platforms? Is there a data collection and analysis platform that fits with our global operations? How can we collect good quality data, analyse and present it in the right format for target audiences?
  • New thematic work in digital technologies should be considered. Relevant examples are digital financial inclusion, last mile connectivity, gender and digital inclusion, the Internet of Things, digital rights, e-waste management and data for development. Should we conduct research and advocacy-based evidence in the future, for instance, to fill the gaps in project interventions?

Using digital technologies in the context of development is no longer optional. NGOs are changing the way they do development. The mapping exercise and discussions on this subject should be seen as a starting point. This is an ongoing process, rather than an one-off one, and would require active participation from key staff members, coordination and organisational support.

 

More reading:

Haikin, Matt (2018) A landscape review of digital technologies trends; their use in the international development sector (ICT4D) and potential relevance to Practical Action. Internal Report. Unpublished.

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