Technology Salon

Washington DC

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a discussion at the intersection of technology and development

How the Principles for Digital Development Can Be Improved

digital principles

Pop Quiz! Name all 9 Principles for Digital Development. Try to name them all right now and from your memory. No fair looking at the official list until you’ve exhausted your attempts. This is how we started the recent Technology Salon that asked, “Can the Principles for Digital Development be Improved?

The Principles for Digital Development will turn 10 years old next year, offering a great opportunity to look back at their impact, consider contemporary long-term trends and changes in digital development and forward to the future of principled digital development.

Our conversation was guided by input from key experts on the Principles, including:

9 Digital Principles at 9 Years Old

We continued our discussion by acknowledging that the Digital Principles came about in a different time. Back in 2010, we had a sense of  “techno-optimism” and hoped to promote coordination and better design, though we had many issues and challenges with digital tools in development.

One core frustration was the rise of proprietary software and data models in global health that precluded governments from adapting the software or exporting data without paying onerous fees to Western software developers. For example, software systems that required re-hiring legacy developers or $100,000 payments per data export.

Then it was a revelation to have a set of guiding principles that we could use as conversation starters with donors, governments, and program staff, to help them think through decisions that could have subtle but huge impacts on program impact. Even if the Principles came mainly from Global North organizations.

This is why there are now over 315 organizations endorsing them (yours too, I bet!) and more every day, mainly from Africa and South Asia. While USAID and the World Bank were early promoters of the Principles, now the Europeans are driving the Principles conversation, often by including them in procurements.

The success of the Digital Principles has spawned a mini-industry of countless other principles, with more surfacing every day. We may soon need principles for principles!

What is the Principles Future?

When I first heard that DIAL was thinking of updating the Principles, I thought, “Why?!” as I feared any attempt at change could be an opportunity to weaken the Principles, especially the Open Principle. The software industry has always pushed back on the preference for open source software.

But there is good reason to think about Principles like, “Design with the User” which seems pretty clear at first glance. However, just who is the “user” here? And why are they central and not a more holistic “constituent” or “stakeholder”. Focusing on the user forgets the builder, the community, and the government – all key players.

Also, there are simply too many of them. How many did you remember at the start of this post? Did you get all nine, correctly? In our Salon, there were only two people who felt they could recite all nine, and one of them was a key Principles promoter, so maybe they didn’t count.

Finally, times have changed since the Principles were developed. The challenges of 2010 are not the same as 2025. We now face an epidemic of mis/dis/mal-information campaigns, rampant digital surveillance, and complicit or inactive governments. The Principles can no longer  simply promote coordination and better design. There is a clear need now to ensure safeguards are built into all levels of technology from infrastructure through applications.

We also need to re-image the Principles where the solution designer is no longer a techie-leaning development worker. Now solutions come from private industry, from local organizations, and are adapted around the world, often by the communities who use them the most. My favorite example is the Chat for Impact effort by, a South African organization that uses the commercial WhatsApp platform for social impact, often in the health space, by leveraging a multi-billion dollar company’s service to improve communications and outcomes.

PACT Goals and Principles Processes

One very interesting idea brought forth in the Salon is to think of the Principles as the process, but not the end goal. What we are really trying to see in the world is a PACT framework that came from Future State, which is now part of DIAL:

  • Participation – people to collaborate, create content, and transact digitally – even the most marginalized
  • Agency – people having clear rights, the means to share their data (or not), and the ability to speak up when things go wrong
  • Choice – people to have ample choices among digital services and providers
  • Trust – people confident in the policies, systems, and institutions underpinning services

If we start with these end goals in mind, then the Principles become a clearer path to reach these ideals. This also means that the Principles can be larger than just “digital” or even “development”.

PACT + Principles becomes our guidance towards clear goals. Our incentives then also become clear, and we know when to follow a Principle, or crucially, when to break one.

I think this concept also makes it easier to build community around both, and find collaborators in government, donors, implementers, and the larger world of technologists, private sector companies, and non-traditional development actors. So stay tuned! A consultation process should be happening in September to November 2023.

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