Digital Development: What is the role for Oxfam?

Matt Haikin ICT4D, Methodology

Matt Haikin explains the findings of some new research, conducted with George Flatters, on what the roles of INGOs should be in an increasingly digital world.

Although Nairobi is the most well-known magnet for interesting ‘tech for good’ start-ups, the whole Horn, East and Central Africa(HECA) region is full of interesting ICT4D activities.

In 2016, we 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. In addition, we reached almost 300 more people with an online survey.

The goal was to recommend ways in which Oxfam can continue to improve their effective use of ICT4D.

Our findings

Our findings included general principles for more effective implementation and impact, as well as recommendations about the roles of Oxfam and other international NGOs (INGOs) in this fast changing digital space. 

A clear need for a shared understanding emerged.

Some of these findings echo work already underway at Oxfam, while others will inform future strategies. Many are relevant for other organisations trying to improve their use of ICT in programmes or put the Digital Principles into practice.

Some key recommendations include:

  • 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 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.
  • Iterate, learn, adapt… with real end users!-  Iterative and user-centred approaches to technology for development were near-acknowledged as a good thing, although structural factors seem to be preventing their more widespread adoption, as seen in the private sector.  The report recommends ways to help make these more of reality – skills development, innovative funding models and nurturing innovation.
  • Scaling is hard… or is it?-  Over 50% of those surveyed reported having successfully scaled a pilot project or small product. We discovered different interpretations of terms like: pilot, customer discovery, scale, sustainability and even whether or not scale should always be a goal. A clear need for a shared understanding emerged, as did a clear demand for funding designed for the specific needs of different phases of a project’s design.
  • Avoid survey fatigue-  The combination of an increasing focus on M&E, with low costs of online / mobile surveys, risks over-exposing some populations to too many questions. To tackle this, practitioners recommended better sharing of information about what surveys have been done in the past, better sharing of data (responsibly of course), and more collaboration between different projects and organisations – actively involving communities and thinking beyond donor-driven project timeframes.
  • 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 connectivity remains a challenge for much of the world. In the rush to embrace new
    technologies, smartphone apps, mobile surveys, etc., we must ensure we design for the significant numbers of the people who are not connected.

The role of international NGOs

Three roles emerged where INGOs could play a positive and catalysing role in ICT4D:

  • As convenors – developing shared guidance on choosing / adapting products, supporting skills development and using networks to bring together diverse actors to develop common understandings and work together to create locally driven ICT4D agendas and practices.
  • As collaborators – working with each other to provide a shared voice and in supportive partnerships with local actors to develop their capacity.
  • As advocates – bridging local civil society, government and international donors to lobby for more appropriate funding and to influence good practice.

How can NGOs meet this challenge?

There are skills and capacity issues to address around digital literacy, business analysis and spreading a wider understanding of the application of technology to development problems.

There is a culture change challenge to embed an understanding of how technology impacts on development at every level of an organisation.

There is a knowledge management challenge to ensure best practices reach those who need them; those making decisions, designing projects, commission work, planning budgets etc.

The digital revolution has reached the development sector; it’s not going away.  All NGOs needs to deal with these same challenges and our research strongly suggests that the priority for the sector will be carving out its role – supporting and developing local actors.

We welcome your ideas in the comments section below.

Read more:


Hadeel Qazzaz