What does the rise of Digital Development mean for NGOs?

ICT4D

Matt Haikin, an ICT for Development (ICT4D) practitioner, summarizes a new paper on digital development in

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East Africa reports, and the challenges for Oxfam and other international NGOs

I’d been living in Nairobi for a couple of months, meeting all the interesting ‘tech for good’ types I could find (and there are a LOT for one city!), when an opportunity came up to conduct some research for Oxfam into… tech for good activity and opportunities in HECA (Horn, East and Central Africa), along with my colleague George Flatters). Result.

For the next few months we met, interviewed and held workshops with 50+ experts from NGOs, tech start-ups, government and civil society as well as donors and academics from across the region, and reached almost 300 more people with an online survey.

The research report and discussion paper was published last week. We think the findings are relevant for other organisations trying to improve their use of ICT or put the Digital Principles into practice and a few of these findings are highlighted below:

Build on what works: When it comes to ICT4D, we usually know what works and it rarely involves the newest technology. Mostly the tools already exist or, where they don’t, an approach can be adapted from something that

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does. We recommend collaboration with other organisations, such as local technology partners, which will develop the capacity of the entire sector at the same time.

Why are we still bad at being adaptable and co-designing with users? In our survey, iterative and user-centred approaches to technology for development were nearly universally acknowledged as a good thing, no big surprise there. However many reflected on the structural factors that seem to be preventing their more widespread adoption — skills gaps, incompatible funding models and the absence of nurturing ecosystems.

Avoiding survey fatigue as mobile technology proliferates. The combination of an increasing focus on M&E, with low costs of online / mobile surveys, risks over-exposing communities to questionnaire after questionnaire from multiple agencies. There is an appetite to collaborate more, across projects and across organisational boundaries, but it all depends on being able to change long-standing cultures to encourage organisations to share and open up much more data (while retaining a respect for privacy and sensitive information of course).

Don’t forget about connectivity: According to the 2016 World Development Report, ‘nearly 60% of the world’s people are still offline… only 31% of the population in developing countries had [internet] access in 2014 and women are less likely than men to use or own digital technologies.’ A lot of the discussion in the ICT4D space has moved beyond issues of connectivity, when in fact a lack of connectivity remains the biggest technology challenge for much of the world. In the rush to embrace new technologies, smartphone apps, mobile surveys, the Internet of Things etc., we must ensure we design for the significant numbers of the people who are not connected, and lobby to get them connected.

What role for NGOs?

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We found that the tech community across Africa would be widely supportive of a move to NGOs to focus more on convening, collaborating and advocating, and away from direct delivery. All of these roles seemed to cut through the normal mixed-opinions about NGOs and the aid sector, all had 80/90% agreement amongst those surveyed, and all seem like a natural progression that aligns with the direction of travel already under way in Oxfam and many other international NGOs:

NGOs as ICT4D convenors: International NGOs can play a valuable role in convening partners from different sectors and helping develop the capacity of local actors — co-creating shared best practice guidance for technology development and product selection, supporting upskilling of local people and partners and, ultimately, facilitating the emergence of a bottom-up ICT4D agenda owned and led by African partners.

NGOs as ICT4D collaborators: NGOs could do more to work with each other to develop shared product requirements and reduce the waste and overlap in producing overly similar tools; and more importantly could do more to collaboratively with local partners (as equals not just as service providers) — helping develop their capacity, and enabling them to take the lead.

NGOs as advocates for ICT4D: NGOs are uniquely placed to exert pressure on donors, multi-lateral institutions and governments. If they can adapt to become more collaborative and become a voice genuinely representative of their local partners — they could be a powerful voice in changing the way these bigger players work — to be more flexible, less top-down, more supportive of developing local capacity, more driven by those actually working with tech in development than those working in policy in London, DC, Brussels etc.

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And just to recap, why is digital an opportunity NGOs should seize?

Right now, digital technology is the darling of the private and public sectors, this gives it (rightly or wrongly) a certain level of influence which more bottom-up, analogue demands for change struggle to create.

Digital technology is disruptive; it creates major change whether we like it or not –we can try to ignore it or we can use it as an opportunity to take drive significant and powerful changes that would be difficult at other, less turbulent times.

Digital technology is here to stay, NGOs need to adapt to it, it’s not going away. For now it is still bedding down as a system, which means it is malleable. Once it becomes fixed, the window of opportunity to influence it and use the disruption it causes to make change for the better will vanish.

Matt Haikin is an ICT4D practitioner, researcher and evaluator who has undertaken development/research work for DFID, the World Bank and the government of Nigeria. He blogs intermittently and can be contacted via www.matthaikin.com