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Mainstreaming Digital Development. Why It’s No Longer a Choice

By Guest Writer on July 16, 2020

mobile phone impact

It’s been a crazy few months. As a company that’s remotely worked without any offices for six years now, we’ve watched as everyone has had to learn what we learnt over that period in as many days — mainly working from home is clearly not the same as working entirely remotely. And we’re still learning every day what does and doesn’t translate well to being a remote company.

We’ve also watched as the development industry, so used to traveling to countries in the name of development, aid, and humanitarian relief, has had to lockdown at home and struggled to transition to a world where we support development at a distance, such as COVID-19 Digital Response. Local teams themselves are often also in lockdown, making the situation still more difficult to navigate.

On calls with clients and other organisations I’ve heard many stories and insights into how digital in development is becoming a more mainstream activity within their programmes of work.  Prompted by what I was hearing, I reached out and spoke to people at all levels of their respective organisations and below is a synthesized summary of what I learned as well as my personal thoughts on what this means and how we’ll all move forward from this crisis.

Digital Development was Increasing pre-COVID-19

Most people reported that there was a specialist team within their organisations managing ‘digital development’, even if it wasn’t named as such. In some cases this has grown out of an ICT4D or tech team, or even the IT function. But in all cases these teams were primarily responsible for digital programming, or at least primarily consulted when digital programming was being developed.

In the last three months these teams have been deluged with requests as digital became the only way to launch responses to COVID-19 and/or manage existing programmes on the ground. The pattern appears to be similar across many organisations;

  1. An initial prioritisation of non-digital activities (traditional vaccine, health, social protection programmes),
  2. A slowly dawning realisation that many of the traditional ways of delivering these programmes were not viable under global lockdowns,
  3. Then an urgent request to digital specialists to contribute to a discussion of how to digitise pretty much everything an organisation wants to do.

Private Sector has Chief Digital Officers, Why Not Us?

Staff who have developed expertise in digital development, or have developed skills during their career, tend to be younger, mid-level or junior staff approaching digital development for their future careers. Senior staff at the back-end of their careers are less likely to have deep digital experience or knowledge.

This means that as digital development approaches mainstream in organisations and as more and more programmes have intrinsic digital components, senior staff are making decisions on things they often know little about.

We have moved away significantly from previous technology for development models that assume technology only has positive outputs, and decisions now need to consider the nuanced benefits and risks of deploying digital solutions — particularly in COVID-19 responses around digital social payments that require identification.

Digital Transformation is Happening Where We Work

Digital payments are accelerating, digital platforms are pivoting to serve customers with groceries and other services, work is migrating online where possible. This is a uniquely global health and economic crisis happening at a moment of uniquely global digital transformation.

Many people I spoke to felt this wasn’t properly understood within their organisations, many of whom assumed digital solutions would not reach the populations they are aimed at, or misunderstood the very human physicality of digital networks in emerging markets.

Or, conversely, some senior management are overestimating the reach of digital technologies, when actually the rapid digital transformation of many countries’ key services is likely to make digital exclusion even more brutal. The need for senior management to properly understand the pros and cons of digital transformation is immediate.

Where Digital Programmes Lead, Digital MERL Follows

Everyone I spoke to reported a marked increase in the need for digital programming, using digital channels to deliver services and reach populations. A few also indicated that there was a burgeoning need for digital measurement and evaluation. Initially this is being framed as a new engagement with digital platforms to do MERL, because field research is currently difficult or impossible.

Although this has been a growing field for a number of years, now accelerating quickly, we’re also seeing some realise that as populations digitise rapidly we need to move beyond simple MERLtech to ask ‘how do we do MERL in a digital age?’ Increased digitisation means increased ways of reading signals from the field — as well as increased ways of tripping over privacy and surveillance issues.

Some respondents bemoaned simplistic thinking these past few months, with most delivery organisations just trying to do more phone or digital surveys to replace field research. (Anecdotally we hear that responding to paid digital surveys is increasingly a viable replacement for missing incomes in some countries…).

Our Caribou Space clients are investigating how to track and monitor vast capital development projects using satellites. As always, Linda Raftree is ahead of the curve here and plots how MERL will adapt to new data sources and new methodologies, which will only be accelerated as a consequence of COVID-19.


1. Support senior management to make informed decisions

As digital is mainstreamed, centres of excellence and specific digital teams will most likely amortise across organisations to support better decision making on the design and implementation of programmes.

Initially, this may be a shock for those who have gotten used to owning digital as a discipline, but it should be seen as a measure of growth that a previously specialist subject is now so central in a rapidly digitising age.

I’ve long said a measure of success for Caribou Digital will be when the ‘Digital’ in our name becomes superfluous, as people realise we’re not really talking about ‘digital economies’ and ‘digital societies’ but increasingly just what modern economies and societies look like.

2. Understand the lived digital experience better.

The digital experience is not a universal one, and digital technologies and services function differently for different populations around the world based on huge varieties in access, representation, economy, and power.

No single digital platform can be rolled out across entire countries, and there isn’t a single technological silver bullet. Also, during the COVID-19 crisis, a tremendous amount of bottom-up innovation and development will be barely understood in remote, locked-down US and EU headquarters.

Listen to populations and local staff in countries, get as near to real-time data on what’s going on, factor this into programme design, and iterate. Everyone says they’re data-led and responsive, but the general opinion amongst the people I spoke to was that this isn’t yet universally true across organisations.

3. Build a digital policy dashboard now

And make sure everyone understands it. I promise you we’ll spend years unpicking data privacy issues alone across the many tech responses to COVID-19. Not just within the mess that is the global track-and-trace app situation, but across how digital identifications are being used to fast-track social payments to replace lost livelihoods. We need global policies and principles for these now. Fortunately many organisations have developed these already.

We’ll see even more change in the development sector in the coming months, in both how we work and the methodologies we use to work, and, although the sample of my peers who kindly responded to my survey and interviews are not a representative panel, there was enough similarity in what they described for me to feel confident in laying out the ideas and recommendations above.

Overall I suspect we’re in for a significant, sometimes brutal, reconfiguring of the International Development and Aid sector. But this is not without opportunities for us to build a better, more efficient, more representative and inclusive approach to our work, which may have the added benefit of decreasing our climate impact.

Rather than just replacing international flights with video calls, we need to properly rethink how we work and how we use digital technology in every aspect of what we do.

If you’ve read this far, thanks! Also, if you’re thinking about how to act on these ideas, then here’s the plug: Firstly, drop us a line!

Second, there are fantastic specialist firms who can help in organisational transformation as well as the other areas mentioned above. Here are just a few, all of whom will do a better job than the massively expensive digital transformation programme a big global consultancy will sell you, I promise:

By Chris Locke, founder of Caribou Digital, and originally published as Coping with COVID, Mainstreaming Digital Development

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One Comment to “Mainstreaming Digital Development. Why It’s No Longer a Choice”

  1. Jitimu says:

    As Covid-19 contagion surges and persists, we have to move from our traditional way of thinking and embrace the new normal.
    Online shopping, although a good enabler to social distancing, is albeit slowly gaining traction in Africa. People still fear shopping online thinking that they may lose money and goods or they may not get the value for their money unlike if they shopped for the product or service physically.
    There need to be sensitization on online marketing and e-commerce in Africa and at the same time creating better delivery channels and maps so that people will gain confidence in this technology.
    Jitimu, http://www.jitimucom