Patryk Kosmider - Fotolia

Department for International Development launches digital strategy

Strategy highlights potential of technology to reduce poverty as department aims to become a global leader in digital

The Department for International Development (DFID) has launched an ambitious digital strategy, outlining how the department aims to become a global leader in digital technology and development.

The three-year strategy, running from 2018-2020, highlights the potential impact digital can have on reducing poverty and inequality and sets out how DFID plans to use technology to help drive “the development system to become more effective, transparent and accountable”.  

This includes improving technology both within the department for its civil servants and users, and working to harness the potential of digital in the rest of the world.

“The world is changing rapidly,” the strategy document said. “DFID will need to adapt its development practices to keep up with the digital transformation agenda across government and the global aid system.”

The department highlighted technology’s potential to improve and transform lives and economies. “Digital technologies offer an unprecedented opportunity to revolutionise the global development system, change lives, transform entire economies, stimulate growth and, ultimately, end reliance on aid,” it said.

The current surge of mobile phones and internet access across the world offers several opportunities, such as stimulating growth, access to jobs, cutting fraud and corruption, and improve education in impoverished areas of the world, DFID said.

For example, it highlighted M-Pesa2, a mobile phone-based financial service that is used by two-thirds of adults in Kenya, enabling them to send and receive money by using a text-based menu.

DFID is already partnering mobile operator group GSM Association (GSMA) to use mobile technology to improve the quality of life for people living in extreme poverty. 

“In this way, we aim to unlock the powerful intersection between mobile-enabled service inclusion, financial inclusion and digital inclusion, leading to a long-term socio-economic impact,” it said. 

The department said it realises it cannot do all this on its own and aims to collaborate with other organisations “who share our digital vision”.

“Together, we will support a transformed global aid system that is well poised to harness the opportunities, and ready to rise to the challenges, of a digital world,” the strategy said.

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This includes identifying and embedding good practice when using digital technology in aid programmes, ensuring there are common standards in digital development across the aid system, as well as championing affordable and secure access to the internet in developing countries.

The department aims to identify and develop digital systems that can be scaled and replicated by others, and wants to share knowledge and champion the use of common technology platforms across governments and donors.  

“DFID will play an active role in digital policy discussions, domestically and internationally,” it said. “We will aim to ensure a strong focus on inclusion and poverty reduction within digital policy.

“This will help ensure marginalised and excluded people and communities have equal opportunities, voice and choice to benefit from digital technologies.”

Although the department sees the potential of digital technologies, its strategy also highlights the danger of leaving people behind, widening the gap even further. 

In developing countries, access to the internet is not a given, with four billion people across the world not having access to it, all at risk of being left behind.

“The benefits of the internet are also being accompanied by new risks of harmful concentration and monopoly, rising inequality, and state and corporate use of digital technologies to control rather than empower citizens,” the strategy said.

It also highlighted the need to bridge the disability divide through digital technologies, with more than 80% of the one billion people around the world with disabilities, living in developing countries.

“People with disabilities face barriers to communicate, interact, access information and participate in civic activities,” the strategy said, adding that digital technologies are “helping overcome some of these barriers”.

“Voice recognition, magnification and text-to-speech functionality benefit people with visual, cognitive, learning and mobility disabilities,” it said.

“Text messaging, telephone relay and video captions reduce communication barriers for people with hearing and speech disabilities. Hands-free navigation and gesture-controlled interfaces assist people with severe mobility impairments in using digital devices.”

Digital technologies have the potential to revolutionise the lives of the poor, and unlock development and prosperity, the department said.

Transforming the department

Within its own department, DFID said it is fully on board with the Government Digital Service’s (GDS) push for common technology and platforms. It aims to redesign its own services, making them more user-centric and increase collaboration with other government departments by using shared platforms. 

The department is also working on moving its services to the cloud and develop its cyber security capability “to build the appropriate cyber and information safeguards into design and delivery of our infrastructure, platforms, applications and processes”.

It is also exploring how it can extend its own Aid Management Platform to other government departments involved with delivering development assistance, as well as working with those departments that also have an international presence to see how they can collaborate and use common technology services internationally.

“The aim is to design platforms, systems and services for flexibility, scalability and reuse that are cost-effective and meet user need,” the strategy said.

“We will advocate a common approach to devices, personal identification, collaboration, office productivity tools, mobile device management and technology designs for property hubs.”

DFID is also working to improve digital skills within the department, and runs a “digital ninja” programme – a network of more than 200 digital experts helping staff to learn more about digital skills.

It has also created a DFID Digital Grid, currently in beta testing, which can be used to search for current digital projects within the department. Results can be filtered by country, sector, tools and problems.

“DFID’s Digital Grid has been developed to help identify and share examples of the use of digital technologies in programmes so that others can learn from them and understand how they are helping to achieve development results,” the strategy said.

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