Last month, the U.K. Department for International Development (DFID) launched its much-anticipated Digital Strategy 2018-2020: Doing Development in a Digital World, outlining its vision and approach towards using technology to have a bigger, faster, and more cost-effective impact on the lives of poor people—particularly those who are marginalised.

dfid-781d0f.png The strategy represents an alignment of the international development sector to the ever-changing world where digital technology is rapidly spreading. The strategy recognises that to have greater impact, we need to be innovating not only to take advantage of the new technologies out there, but also to make sure we are utilising the ones our target audiences are already using.

To explore the strategy further, we asked colleagues from projects in Pakistan and East Africa, as well as some of our corporate staffers, for their thoughts on what the digital strategy means for DAI’s work and for international development as a practice. Here is what they say.

Imran Ghazali, Head of Digital Campaigning, Transforming Education in Pakistan programme

Transforming Education in Pakistan welcomes the DFID Digital Strategy, which not only recognises the importance of digital tools, but also focuses on user-centred design and data for scalable and sustainable programming.

Digital media is the core part of our overall campaign strategy, called Alif Ailaan, as it helps us engage and influence Pakistani political leaders, journalists, government officials, educationists, policy makers, and most importantly, the voters of Pakistan, in the upcoming general elections. Effectively using digital tools, we are able to highlight the state of education in Pakistan and make it part of the national discourse.

Most importantly, Alif Ailaan meets our audiences on the platforms they already use: Facebook and Twitter. By considering all groups in planning interventions, the programme team realised that while Facebook has by far the most users and is vital for achieving scale, Twitter is the medium most used by the most influential voices in Pakistan. On Facebook, we reach more than 15 million people and engage with more than 1 million users every quarter. On Twitter, we have successfully helped the general public to reach and engage with politicians and political parties and make them answerable to the issues related to education. By using the platforms target audiences are already on, Alif Ailaan is increasing its scale and reach. By removing the need for creating buy-in, we have greatly increased the speed at which the programme makes real change.

Another important aspect of designing with the user in mind is being iterative and data-driven. We keep a close eye on the digital analytics and regularly incorporate the learning into our strategy, developing it in an incremental manner. For example, we observed that we can maximise our reach and engagement with video content. Moreover, data showed that most people watch videos with sound off on Facebook and more than 50 percent exit the video after five seconds. This date led us to produce textual/story-based videos and we made sure we have our core communication message in the beginning of our video.

Diana Ngaira, Communication and Knowledge Management Expert, FoodTrade East and Southern Africa

FoodTrade East and Southern Africa focuses on strengthening regional staple food markets. It is a complex programme for a variety of reasons, including its geographic spread (it covers nine countries), the unpredictable policy environment, as well as the limited capacity of smallholder farmers to participate in structured trade systems. By integrating relevant technology into the projects we support, grantees have been able to support smallholders with access to market information and provide them with access to regional market opportunities.

We recognise that grantees and beneficiaries grapple with challenges at the farm level that limit the use of digital technologies. These barriers include poor internet connectivity, unreliable power supply, and lack of access to the tools required to tap into the technologies available. The spread of the fall armyworm highlighted the urgent need for digital technologies that can be used for disaster response in agriculture—farmers had inefficient access to information on control measures and they struggled to contain the damage inflicted by the pest. It is clear that there remains a lot of potential to grow the utility of digital technology in regional agriculture markets, and this will continue to be an important cross-cutting theme for us. We are pleased that the DFID Digital Strategy recognises this potential, but also notes the challenges associated with running digital interventions in marginalised communities and hard-to-reach areas.

Krista Baptista, Director, DAI ICT and Digital Team

We are thrilled to see the DFID Digital Strategy focus in on actionable steps that development programmes can take to effectively and proactively incorporate digital into their activities. DAI has long appreciated both the challenge and the opportunity that digital represents in our projects. By aligning with the Principles for Digital Development, and using tools such as the Digital GRID to share lessons across projects, DFID demonstrates leadership and collaboration with other donors such as the U.S. Agency for International Development.

As the strategy points out, once people have access, they need to have the digital skills to utilize that access for empowerment, inclusion, and participation to further development impact. Having committed to our own internal capacity-building activities related to knowledge and skills around managing digital programmes, we are also inspired by the emphasis on capacity building that DFID demonstrates through the strategy. To realize the potential of digital, we as development practitioners need to reach across sectors and our own organizations to increase the knowledge base, identify resources, and increase skills to navigate the constantly evolving landscape of digital tools and innovations.

Bhairav Raja, DAI Global Practice Specialist, Private Sector Development and Financial Services

People with limited or no money in developing markets are often confronted by factors that reduce their economic potential. These include poor access to traditional financial services, including a lack of physical access and transport to reach banking infrastructure, branchless banking, and hidden account and transaction fees within financial institutions. DFID’s Digital Strategy builds upon important work delivered under DFID’s Growth and Resilience portfolio. For example, programmes such as Financial Sector Deepening Mozambique (FSDMoç) and the Private Enterprise Programme Ethiopia (PEPE) are stimulating growth, jobs and financial inclusion. Based upon user-centred design, these programmes are incorporating catalytic financial and technical assistance investments that help build market systems for digital financial services. This assistance is reducing the risk posed by living cash-only and is helping gain efficiencies for people with limited means who need to send money or save cash. Citizens in developing markets are using informal means to remit physical cash from villages and towns to cities and are saving inside informal and semi-formal schemes. Digital capabilities such as mobile money transactions allow citizens to mimic these transactional behaviours whilst offering a safe store of value and lower transaction costs. As scale and agency is increased in digital financial service markets, greater opportunities are opened up for citizens to participate in and benefit from economic opportunities. For example, a digital financial service ecosystem can benefit small-scale agricultural producers, transporters, storage operators, and exporters. Digitising helps to expedite payments back and forth while creating better data and records and opening up cross border transactions and trade.

Rebecca Kinahan, Consultant, DAI Business Development Unit

DFID’s Digital Strategy offers a much-welcomed prospect for DAI to work more closely with DFID to explore how digital advancements are transforming our understanding of the contexts in which we work. At DAI, we understand the importance of building for sustainability. We want our work to contribute to helping individuals and communities be prepared for the future of where economic and social opportunities will be, and all things digital form a crucial part of this. Whether it is better understanding where jobs will be created as a result of digital advancements, or mapping out which 21st century skills should be invested in, it is not possible to understand development challenges and opportunities without understanding the enabling role of the internet, technology, and digital communications. DFID’s strategic focus on digital access and infrastructure not only provides an excellent framework for DAI to further integrate this digital future thinking into our programmes, but will also facilitate wider discussion on lessons learned and results that have already been achieved.

Ruth Sparrey, Director, Managing for Development Results

The DFID Digital Strategy reflects our Managing for Development Results agenda where we are transforming the way in which we learn from our work. High-quality monitoring information captured using digital technology and presented visually helps us achieve our mission and communicate the development results that we help to deliver. It enables us to report transparently and consistently to: the people who are intended to benefit from the work we deliver; our in-country partners; our clients, and, as shareholders—ourselves.

Our approach will help us demonstrate how effective we are at achieving outcomes that improve people’s lives and acting quickly when we need to. Using digital technologies in this way allows us to learn faster and be smarter so that we can better understand our performance and deliver our mission better.