9 Development Principles to Stop Waste of Time and Money

Photo: IREX (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Photo: IREX on Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Last week, a group of ICT for Development (ICT4D) practitioners presented the “Digital Development Principles” in Washington, DC. The report “reflects insights from a year-long community discussion of the Principles of Digital Development, during which over 500 individuals representing more than 100 organizations took part.”

At the core of the document is the question “Why are we continuing to fail for known reasons, rather than failing because we’re trying something new?”, followed by recommendations how to do better in the future.

“While the potential is clear, the success of the thousands of projects that have sprung up using technology to close access gaps is less so. Pilots have failed to move into scalable and sustainable programs. Solutions too often reinvent the wheel rather than building on robust platforms, infrastructure, and shared services. Applications and services designed thousands of miles from their use environment failed to meet user needs. The creation of duplicative tools and systems has made data difcult to access and use for decision-making.”

The Nine Principles for Digital Development. I have to admit that, when I first looked at the slide deck that summarizes the findings and recommendations, I was disappointed. So much seemed so obvious. Do we really need a year-long process to tell us that we should “build for sustainability” or that we should “commit to integrating best practice into business processes”? I’ll be the first to admit that it’s frequently not done – but we all know that we should do it. So what’s the point?

However, the deeper I dug into the documents that support the Digital Development Principles, the more useful I found them.

I particularly like the “Community Insights” booklet that gives practical examples and recommendations how the different principles can be put into practice. I also like that the main document itself provides links to many related resources that can help you improve your projects.

The principles as a risk analysis tool 

In my opinion, the nine principles can be especially useful if applied as a risk analysis tool: Start from the assumption that your project is guaranteed to fail if you do not follow any of the principles. Then, create a table and list how your project is applying each of the principles. If you see a lot of gaps, you’ll know that the risk of your project failing is fairly big. And while applying all the principles is by no means a guarantee for success, you’ll at least have reduced the likelihood of failing for obvious reasons.

[Tweet “Assume that your project *will* fail if you do not follow any of these principles.”]

Use in emergencies

The nine principles are written with development in mind – but what about emergency response? It’s tempting to say that in an emergency you don’t have time to apply many of these principles since things have to move fast. But that is wrong. For one thing, anyone who designs technology in an “incremental and iterative manner “(Principle 1) will be able to improve their initial design and apply the principles over time. Secondly, most disasters happen in the same places over and over again. So there is no reason why your NGO, UN agency or National Red Cross or Red Crescent Society couldn’t apply the digital development principles as part of disaster risk reduction and disaster preparedness activities. And last but not least: wasting precious resources in an emergency because you have failed to follow basic, common sense good practice is simply irresponsible!

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What are your thoughts? Please leave them in the comments!

  • Sameer Go

    Thank you for highlighting the Digital Development Principles and sharing the resources, Timo. As I was going through the 9 principles for digital development, it reminded me of the 9 principles of innovation, which have been endorsed or adopted by UNDP, UNICEF, Gates Foundation, etc. In fact, on a closer look, the principles for digital development and innovation are identical, except principle 8, which is phrased a bit differently. In principles for digital development, the eight principle is to address privacy and security, whereas, in the principles of innovation, it is to do no harm. I wanted to see if you have any thoughts, Timo, on whether the principles for digital development and innovation are the same (just with different titles) or are they different, but use the same underlying principles. For your easy reference, I am providing the link for UNDP’s Innovation Report 2015, which has the 9 principles of innovation with examples, and information on 62 initiatives across 45 countries to achieve 15 SDGs: http://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/librarypage/development-impact/2015-year-in-review.html

  • Feiyang Yuan

    Hi, Timo~

    When I read these digital principles, I have the similar feeling as you. They seem so obvious that make me feel a bit disappointed. But the viewpoint you mentioned that if we can combine with these 9 principles together and utilize them in emergencies, it still quite brilliant! I agree with you very much. Because these principles have involved almost the whole aspects we need to focus when the emergency occurred. We know that time means life, and the best time to rescue is less 72 hours. Once over 72 hours, the chance to rescue victims will decline significantly. These principles enable to improve the effective of helping and saving people, from this aspect, the practical value of these theories is invaluable.