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The Digital Principles are Rooted in Collaboration and Primed for Growth

By Guest Writer on February 13, 2020

Digital Principles reboot

The Principles for Digital Development are one of the most successful examples of collaboration and partnership in our industry. Created for development practitioners, we’ve been deliberating and iterating on the values that underpin the Principles for well over a decade—the result of which is 200+ endorsing organizations that have signed on to a “choose-your-own-adventure” ride of digital development, guided by a set of nine overarching values.

The current iteration of the Principles was born from the alignment of two separate initiatives: the Greentree Principles and UNICEF’s Innovation Principles. At the time, DFID and the World Bank operated under similar policies — these were also incorporated and built into the Principles we use today.

While we may not have all been in the room for the final review in 2013–14 the fact that more than 150 additional organizations—primarily based in the Global South—have endorsed these Principles in the subsequent years demonstrates that the guidelines continue to encompass an adaptive approach to development that taps the knowledge and experience of our industry in the digital space.

Digital Principles Improve Our Work

As an endorser, I’ve seen firsthand how living the Principles can improve programming and call attention to a number of systematic issues that prevent our sector from overcoming barriers and achieving greater impact.

Though not directly called out in their titles, the Digital Principles do inform how we address issues like access, gender, disabilities, and marginalized communities. The Principles help my organization understand that the contexts of beneficiaries can be radically different (Principle 2) based on gender, education, disability, etc.

In addition, we are forced to confront the reality that access to ICT tools and data services are likely to be less consistent for women than men in many parts of the world (Principle 1); at the same time, ICT tools help overcome traditional access issues brought about by disability.

Finally, many at-risk populations may have different security and privacy concerns than members of the general population (Principle 9). They may be reluctant to share their information digitally if they are afraid data may get into the wrong hands and jeopardize their safety.

These issues are raised within the Principles themselves and the current steward, the Digital Impact Alliance (DIAL), has done an outstanding job of making guidance available to those interested in understanding and addressing issues such as those raised above.

A prime example: as a member of the Digital Principles community, Plan International has even gone as far as to contribute an approach to “Practicing the Principles for Digital Development in a Gender Transformative and Inclusive Way.”  

Digital Principles Do Not Need a Reboot

Therefore, I find Tony Roberts’ critique asking for Rebooting the Digital Principles to be misguided. The article published on the Institute of Development Studies website’s opinion page, calls attention to the supposed lack of collaboration that went into the design of the Principles—and alleges issues have arisen from this perceived lack of engagement.

While I take issue with the central tenet of the post, i.e. that “the Principles themselves were not designed with users in a collaborative way…”, I do share Tony’s belief that we can and should continue to iterate on the Principles.

As we continue to develop digital and data competencies within our sector, and as the number of stakeholders grow, the Principles will need to change to reflect new realities—and revisions need to live up to the embodied values.

The Future of the Digital Principles

To Tony Roberts’s point, this includes further building on the guidance noted in Principle 2, recognizing that digital ecosystems are not ‘neutral,’ but rather default to reflect the current structures and biases in our systems. This recognition provides a course for further growing and diversifying the list of organizations and individuals who see themselves in the Principles for Digital Development.

At the same time, it’s important to underscore that the Principles are meant to complement and guide programs. They were developed as a framework to improve practitioners’ approaches to digital development work, not to be the full instruction guide.

They challenge practitioners to be more thoughtful in their design considerations, but they can’t serve as the ultimate checklist. Where a program has failed to take into account gender and/or other dimensions, the Principles are not equipped to solve these oversights.

At present, there is a growing consensus on areas where we can iterate on the Principles. Some topics of agreement include:

  1. Invest in making governance and feedback systems clearer and more explicit, including documenting who is contributing and how decisions on language and focus are decided. Progress is already being made on this front, with the launch of DIAL’s Digital Principles Advisory Council.
  2. Separate data from digital. We are seeing an explosion in the demand for data analysis, which often gets conflated with digital tools that capture, share, or visualize data. ICT tools won’t fix poor quality data, misuse, or harm from data, or not using data for decision making. In addition, not all data systems are 100% digital, and data systems move data across different digital software solutions. We need to be clear in the Principles about how data management is essential but separate from digital development.
  3. Digital talent in the Global South has dramatically grown over the last 10 years, with private sector and nonprofit IT providers able to provide cutting-edge tools, content, and analysis. The Principles should better incorporate the perceptions of national and subnational partners, including involvement of stakeholders in the creation, management, and evaluation of digital tools and platforms. The newly released Principles for Subnational Development provide a good overview of what success may look like in this regard.

While I don’t see the need to reboot the Principles just yet, there is a recognition that the Digital Principles are themselves something akin to a digital ecosystem. Growing and diversifying the list of organizations and individuals who see themselves in the Principles will be key to their continued success. Collaboration has been central to the Principles for Digital Development to this point and their success going forward will rely on more of the same.

By Michael Klein, a director of IMC USA, which addresses some of the world’s primary development challenges

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