In 2008, Uganda started coming down with a condition well known to the international development community. It wasn’t a virus or disease; it was a case of “pilotitis.”
As many as 80 NGOs were testing consumer-facing mobile health (mHealth) programs at once, but none of the pilots were scalable, interoperable, or meaningfully coordinated. The rush of new projects quickly overwhelmed the Ministry of Health with requests for programmatic support, prompting the Ugandan government to issue a moratorium on mHealth pilots in 2012 so that it could better track, assess and coordinate all efforts.
Uganda wasn’t alone. A World Bank study in 2013 found nearly 500 disparate mHealth programs being implemented around the world – particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia – without evidence of scaling or integration.
A preventive treatment of sorts has arrived to help organizations address these “technology for development” problems: The Principles for Digital Development.
The Principles for Digital Development
The principles are a product of several years of collaborative efforts between donors and hundreds of aids organizations to discuss common failures and identify ways to address them collectively. Animating these efforts was a desire to leverage the private sector approach to iteration and scalability that has been so successful in the tech community, and to adapt it for the development community.
The best practices that emerged from these discussions set the standard for collaborating, reusing, improving and building sustainability for development technologies, among other concepts. They are designed to both help development organizations looking to leverage technology, and help technology companies looking to leverage social good, to make the most impact.
-Principle 1: Design with the User
-Principle 2: Understand the Ecosystem
-Principle 3: Design for Scale
-Principle 4: Build for Sustainability
-Principle 5: Be Data Driven
-Principle 6: Use Open Standards, Open Source, Open Data and Open Innovation
-Principle 7: Reuse and Improve
-Principle 8: Address Privacy and Security
-Principle 9: Be Collaborative
From Principles to practice
So how does this work? For example, take Awaaz.De, an Indian mobile solutions company, which designed a radio call-in program that leveraged voice-based communications channels. In designing the program, Awaaz.De embodied Principle #1: Design with the User, as managers sought a solution that truly met the farmers’ needs. The team spoke with farmers to understand their motivations, openness to new ideas and willingness to change. Based on those findings and analysis, Awaaz.De designed a system that enabled browsing, searching and filtering questions posed to call-in program hosts. With the user – the farmer – at the center of the design process, Awaaz.De is able to fully support a peer-to-peer knowledge and information exchange that subsequent evaluations identified as the biggest benefit of the program.
Just as importantly, funders are incorporating aspects of the principles as they work to make their project requirements more conducive for organizations to design international development-focused technologies. USAID, for instance, is testing new approaches to procurement, monitoring and evaluation, and other internal processes to better support planning for digital development projects in the field, allow for more adaptive and iterative operations, and create more flexible programming that can adapt based on real-time data.
Why we need you
As mobile phones and Internet access begins to penetrate most remote areas of the world, digital tools are helping to reach previously unreachable communities. Technology gives us the opportunity to be adaptive in our programs by including citizen feedback faster and more comprehensively. These principles provide guidance on how to leverage technology effectively and sustainably. However, true integration of the Principles will require commitment from governments, traditional development implementers, social impact entrepreneurs, technology experts and community members to refine the way we use technologies.
In February 2016, the Digital Impact Alliance (DIAL), assumed stewardship of the Principles for Digital Development, and it is building off of the rich community discussion thus far. DIAL is working with partners on practical steps to operationalize the Principles through activities such as tools development, lessons learned dissemination, and most importantly, through active engagement with the development community, from donors and implementers to country governments and the private sector.
Regardless of sector or audience, these Principles are essential to making sustainable, high-impact change in the communities that need it. Take a look at the Principles report to learn more and sign up for the Principles listserve to join the conversation.