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How can Digital Transformation help #ShiftThePower?

By Matt Haikin on December 1, 2023

shift the power digital transformation

I am Matt Haikin, an experienced ICT4D and Digital Transformation (DX) consultant.  I am looking forward to attending the Shift the Power Summit on December 5-7, in Bogota, Colombia, to explore how the Shifting the Power agenda can come together with my own experience in digital transformation – a power perspective is something I have long thought is often missing from DX work.

The goals of these two very different movements are both laudable:

  • Digital Transformation: Improved access to and effective delivery of digital services
  • Shift The Power: Overturning unequal digital power asymmetries

However, at best they operate in silos, side-by-side, while at times they seem to be actively working against each other.  Could we re-conceive things so the movements are brought together in a way that amplifies both goals and take advantage of digital technologies to fundamentally change unequal power structures?

Changing power structures is notoriously difficult, those with power often do not relinquish it easily, and we need to use every tool at our disposal to help.  Beyond traditional routes such as influencing and advocacy work, might Digital Transformation be an overlooked tool?

Shifting the Power

Power imbalances in the aid/development sector are well-known – between richer and poorer countries (Global North/South), between donors and implementers, between international ‘experts’ and local communities, the influence of multinational capital and other vested interests, overt or internalised racism, missing voices of affected communities etc.  The #ShiftThePower movement is a sector-wide response to this:

“A move away from top-down systems of international development towards people-based development . . . a people-led paradigm that shifts power closer to the ground . . . a call for new behaviours, mindsets and ways of working . . . new interactions are power neutral, those we seek to “help” have more power than they are given credit for . . . it is the job of institutions that are serious about real, lasting change to know when to give up their own power.”

[abbreviated  #ShiftThePower definition from GFCF]

And yet… changes in power dynamics caused by Digital Transformation processes are often absent from these Shifting Power conversations.

Digital Transformation

Digital Transformation (DX) refers to the ongoing digitalisation of almost all aspects of humanitarian aid and development; although, perhaps unhelpfully, it seems to mean different things to different organisations – spanning internal organisational processes and IT systems, to the use of digital in external programming work with communities – what some of us still refer to as ICT4D or Digital Development.

The vast majority of INGOs, bi-laterals, donors and host-country governments have either just started, or are about to start, Digital Transformation journeys, which tend to touch on every part of an organisation, every department within a government.  This creates a huge potential opportunity for power changes (whether positive or negative).

And yet… most of this work takes place without a focus on or an understanding of the power dynamics it is influencing, or the potential to harness such changes to overturn inequitable power asymmetries (or exacerbate them!).

Institutional Change through Digital Transformation

It is generally understood that, when we digitalise systems, we change power structures – this is true in all sectors (whether exacerbating or overturning asymmetrical power relations between workers and companies; by including and excluding different populations through choices of data collection platforms; or by creating or removing ‘workarounds’ to rigidly defined processes…)

Drawing a parallel with the typology from my 2016 work Evaluating Digital Citizen Engagement: A Practical Guide, I see two types of institutional context where this digital power dynamic feels particularly impactful; each with potentially different routes to achieving positive impact:

  • Institutions already committed to changing existing power dynamics

For those already interested in making positive changes to their power structures; harnessing the changes to power dynamics that come with digitalisation is a valuable tool to help move the needle: to entrench positive changes in the revised processes and structures that accompany digitalisation (or at the very least, to avoid unintentionally undermining changes being sought elsewhere)

For this group, it is relatively easy to envisage some form of advisory function – either directly to the relevant institutions, or indirectly via the many consultancies that already offer Digital Transformation advice.

  • Institutions resistant to changing existing power dynamic

This group is, of course, harder, but due to the way Digital Transformation work touches every part of an institution’s structure, and often causes changes that were not intended by those in power (and sometimes not even understood by them), in certain circumstances perhaps DX could be co-opted to initiate or support positive changes somewhat under the radar of those in power who might be resistant to such change.

Digital Transformation as a tool for Shifting the Power

Can Digital Transformation be undertaken in ways that ensure the structural power changes it brings about, happen in favour of the poor – in ways that reduce inequality, reduce digital dependencies, give power to affected communities, to civil society and Southern democratic institutions, instead of to multi-national capital and Northern-based institutions?

Can this help to ensure that important decisions about technologies are made by those as close to the people affected by those decisions as possible?

Here are a couple of illustrations relevant to development work:

  • Choosing technology partners

Choices of technology are typically based on ‘sensible’ factors such as scalability, reliability and cost; ignoring the fact that certain options can be of enormous benefit to local technology sectors while others effectively exclude them.

For example, choosing to use reusable building blocks that a local technology partner can rapidly tailor to local community needs . . . vs. rolling out the same multi-national tool globally because it is easier for the IT team to service.

Such choices can help or hinder country technology industries to move away from an emerging ‘digital dependency’.

  • Creating new communication channels

Analog citizen engagement communication routes are often replaced with “efficient” one-to-one forms of digital communication such as SMS.  However, sometimes the previous in-person routes were “many-to-one” communications.

These offered a way for communities to come together with a shared voice to attempt to influence their local (at times corrupt) representatives.  The newer, more efficient mechanisms can remove this shared voice leaving individual citizens to fight their battles alone.  Might a different less ‘efficient’ choice of technology amplify these shared community voices instead of silencing them?

Four ideas that could help #ShiftThePower:

Bringing the concepts above together, here are four ideas that might help us harness the power of digital transformation as a new tool in the fight to #ShiftThePower:

1.  Bring a power lens to Digital Transformation

If we were going to do DX differently and include a Shifting the Power lens, what would be different? To understand this, it helps to first consider what are some of the typical recommendations for aid and development institutions on a digital transformation journey.

In my previous DX consulting work (for Oxfam, FHI 360, Chemonics, Practical Action and UNICEF), a number of common factors emerged, some of which are highlighted in the table below:

Organisational changes needed to facilitate a DX journey Embedding good practices in digital delivery Overcoming key ‘ICT4D’ challenges
A clear shared definition of DX (which seems to have a different meaning in every organisation or department)

Clear leadership: digital skills represented on the board, shared vision, senior buy-in and digital champions

Capacity development and upskilling of staff (basic data and digital literacy for all, as well as ‘ICT4D’ implementation skills for many)

Redesigned processes that enable the alignment of digital skills with sector/focus-area skills, particularly in initial proposals and program design

Revised staffing structures that enable limited digital resources to support whole organisations without resorting to a single Head Office team
(depending on the centralised / decentralised context this might be hybrid teams, matrix management, pockets of excellence, embedded country advisors or a range of other options)

Rethinking roles to bring technical analysis skills into hybrid positions spanning digital and more ‘traditional’ development expertise

Incorporating the Principles for Digital Development (and key missing components such as agile/adaptive approaches)

Deep understanding of technology selection and implementation – which technologies, when and why… when to build vs buy


The power of interoperable systems (cf. DIAL’s building blocks)


Pilotitis or moving from pilot to scale


Strategic collaboration and technology partnering (particularly with local partners in the global South)


Developing a clear thought leadership offer and space in the market


Would these recommendations differ with a Shifting the Power lens – do they need tweaking or should we throw out what we think we know and start over? I will be publishing an article exploring this soon – sign up to be kept informed.

2. Move from DX to DX4D (Digital Transformation for Development)

Richard Heeks and his team at the University of Manchester have been bringing a more robust academic lens to this and questioning what Digital Transformation can learn from Transformation Studies and by more clearly putting ‘development’ as its goal. There is a series of blogs on their current thinking:

As is so often the case, the challenge here for the practitioner community is how do we go about translating these academic insights into something actionable?

3.    Integrate power dynamics into the work of DX consultants and advisers

While most development actors are either on a DX journey, or about to start on one; few really understand what is needed, so they are seeking external advice and support from an emerging cohort of individuals and organisations with DX expertise.

These range from individual consultants and all the usual private sector consultancies, specialist organisations such as the Digital Impact Alliance, Public Digital, the Blavatnik School of Government, as well as specific units within larger aid organisations such as UNICEF and the World Bank.

Could these intermediaries be influenced to embrace a #ShiftThePower agenda into their models and how might incorporating this lens into their existing Digital Transformation models change the advice and support they offer?

4.   Could digitalisation be a ‘trojan horse’ for shifting power . . ?

Key DX decisions are typically made by software-engineers, database administrators, systems architects, product designers and IT project managers, far removed from the users of their products and even further from wider communities impacted; often without understanding the social impact and changes to power relations that might occur.

If we combine these inevitable changes in power that come with the digitalisation of systems, with the fact that digitalisation tends to touch every aspect of an institution, every department, and that often those in power don’t really understand technology and so tend to look the other way and leave the techies to get on with it…  Does this offer a window of opportunity to steer DX work in a way that more intentionally creates positive changes to power dynamics?

To influence these actors, it is much harder to picture how in reality it might be possible to identify funding, partners, and support to effectively use ICT to sneak positive power changes past the gatekeepers trying to prevent this happening.

Perhaps by seeking to affect change via the ‘back door’ of the techies, developers and product designers who currently wield significant power over the changes that emerge from new digital systems. But how could we go about this in reality – worth consideration!?

What do you think?

These are just some early ideas, what else could we explore to combine the goals of Shifting the Power with the goals of Digital Transformation?

Given my experience, this thinking starts from Digital Transformation and looks to bring #ShiftThePower into this… What would it look like instead to start with the latest thinking around Shifting the Power and add in a Digital Transformation lens to see what new opportunities that might enable?

I shall be hosting a conversation on some of these ideas at the Shift the Power Summit in Bogota.

  • If you will also be there, drop me a line and let’s have a coffee and a chat
  • If you have ideas on this subject, please leave reflections in the comments below – I’d love to bring these in to the conversations at the Summit
  • If you want to hear what emerges from the Summit conversations, let me know and I can host a Tech Salon to bring the conversation to a wider audience.

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Written by
Matt Haikin Matt Haikin is a Digital Transformation consultant, practitioner and published researcher specialising in participatory approaches to technology. He has worked at all levels and led teams for INGOs, multi-laterals, civil society and community organisations in the UK and the global South.
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6 Comments to “How can Digital Transformation help #ShiftThePower?”

  1. Elizabeth Njoroge says:

    What a nice read Matt Haikin.I just came back from a two-day Charter for Change in Nairobi which is particularly focuses on localization and how we are devolving power. (The one request from local actors was, it is devolving power but not shifting power.)

    It was interesting as Digital transformation angle did not feature so much but excited to hear that this is already happening and would be interested to continue this conversation and learn from what #shiftthepower summit will bring to these conversations.

    #localization #digitaltransformation
    #ict4d #kagototechgirl

  2. Matt Haikin says:

    Thx really Interesting take on devolving vs shifting (and sharing vs giving up I guess). Be intrigued to see if this is a theme at the Summit too!

  3. Thank you Matt . As a cofounder of a Tech for Good company from a developing country,would like to to share some key concerns based on my observation and experience :

    1.Equity in Compensation:There is a persistent disparity in compensation between ICT4D professionals in developing countries compared to their counterparts in developed nations. Many skilled professionals I’ve worked with, despite their extensive experience often find their contributions undervalued in international ICT4D projects. How can we ensure fair compensation that reflects the true value of their local expertise?

    2. Recognition of Local Expertise: Local ICT4D professionals bring invaluable technological skills and a deep understanding of their local context, a crucial factor for the success of any project. Yet, I’ve seen that their involvement and recognition are often marginalized. How can we ensure that their insights and contributions are central to the planning and execution of projects?

    3. Decentralized Decision-Making: In several ICT4D projects, decision-making processes are still heavily skewed towards foreign professionals. This can sometimes lead to misalignments between project goals and local needs. What steps can be taken to truly decentralize decision-making and empower local voices?

    • Wayan Vota says:

      Uttam, I totally agree that we should follow local expertise more and always favor local decision making. Failing to follow local guidance is always a first step towards failure.

      However, I feel that equity in compensation misses the larger challenge facing all international organizations – the staff competition arena. A company hiring someone who can work in the USA, UK, EU, etc is competing for that talent with other organizations in those countries, no matter where that person may work. They cannot pay Nepali salaries (for example) and expect to keep “Western” staff in Nepal. This is true for all major multinational companies – for or nonprofit, in development or the general private sector.

      This is not to say that Nepali salaries for talented ICT4D staff should be low. I am a huge supporter of compensating high-quality people with high-quality pay. They may make more (even much more) than a typical Nepali. However, because that person is competing in the Nepali context, and not in the US, UK, EU context, the hiring company will never pay them US, UK, EU wages. Again, this is usually true regardless of the industry.

      Don’t take this as a defense of the practice, only an explanation for why its existed since at least the 1800s. I was just reading about the Panama Canal construction in the late 1800s/early 1900s, and even then, French and then US staff were paid more than Panamanians, who were paid more than Barbadians.

      • Matt Haikin says:

        Not sure the history is a great argument given … well.. colonialism.. 🙂

        Having to compete differently in US/European markets is an interesting point that I think is relevant in some scenarios but, in others, is perhaps just another part of the same problem – if they are more expensive then surely it would suggest more local (cheaper) staff would be being hired, which seems not to be the case often anyway…

        I know some organisations are doing some really interesting work around formulas for global pay – taking into account purchasing power parity (i.e. $100,000 goes a lot lot further in India than in New York), but also the fact that that is only part of the story and, particularly once you move into more senior roles where people are earning money to save not to spend, it gets more complex.

        Would love to hear from anyone with direct experience of these – and (bringing it back from general aid to to ICT) particularly if this is any different for more technical roles that SOMETIMES might be harder to fill locally?

  4. Matt Haikin says:

    Great points. I wonder if anyone knows of examples that have addressed these successfully..?