33. A snapshot of bilateral digital development strategies

Ida Mc Donnell
Development Co-operation Directorate, OECD
Marc Cortadellas Mancini
Development Co-operation Directorate, OECD

The authors would like to acknowledge contributions to this chapter by Catherine Anderson and Marilyn Bachmann.

  • Digitalisation is an explicit strategic priority for 12 Development Assistance Committee members that have dedicated strategies. A further six members refer to the importance of digitalisation in their overarching development co-operation policies.

  • International development co-operation on digitalisation would benefit from applying best practices, notably via aligning with country priorities, stronger co-ordination, building the evidence base and learning from it.

At the 2020 ministerial meeting of the Development Assistance Committee (DAC), members highlighted the importance of harnessing technology and digitalisation1 based on proven standards, building on established methods in development co-operation, including human rights-based approaches, addressing inequalities, leaving no one behind, and supporting education and skills. Leaders stressed the importance of identifying opportunities and risks stemming from digital-led growth, data-driven technologies and digital public goods for development (OECD, 2020[1]).

The UN Secretary-General Guterres’ Roadmap on Digital Cooperation provided a new orientation towards more holistic strategies for all stakeholders – including development co-operation actors – focused on the enablers of digital transformation and collaboration, with a call to build a more effective architecture for global digital co-operation (UN, 2020[2]). The Roadmap’s eight objectives include: (1) achieving global connectivity by 2030; (2) promoting digital public goods to create a more equitable world; (3) ensuring digital inclusion for all, including the most vulnerable; (4) strengthening digital capacity building; (5) ensuring the protection of human rights in the digital era; (6) supporting global cooperation on artificial intelligence; (7) promoting trust and security in the digital environment; and (8) building a more effective architecture for digital global co-operation. Achieving these broad objectives everywhere will be challenging, not least for development co-operation actors seeking to accompany low- and middle-income countries on their digital transformation journeys.

While fewer than half of DAC members have explicit digital-for-development strategies, countries investing in digitalisation appear to be shifting towards more holistic approaches.2 There is also a push for more joined-up support as shown by the European Union’s (EU) new Digital for Development Hub (D4D) (Box 33.1) and alliances such as the Digital Impact Alliance (DIAL, n.d.[3]) which aims to accelerate national digital transformation; build global cooperation; and connect, support and scale proven solutions in line with the Principles for Digital Development (n.d.[4]).3

Development actors have been increasing their investments in digital-related activities (see Chapter 40). However, as this snapshot shows, digitalisation is not an explicit priority for most DAC members. Just 12, which are also among the largest financers of digital-related development co-operation, have explicit strategies. The latest strategies4 (since 2019) recognise the interlinkages between foundational enablers of digital transformations (such as universal and affordable access to the Internet, digital public infrastructure, policy and regulatory environment, and digital skills) and the use of digital technologies for service delivery and across sectors (Table 33.1).

Three aspects of digital transformation are covered in the strategies with a high degree of consistency across countries: (1) expanding Internet access and affordability and enhancing digital services; (2) supporting enabling environments to harness digitalisation as a whole-of-government-and-society process; (3) mainstreaming digitalisation – or digital-by-default – across all sectoral investments an evidence-based way. Issues of privacy and security, transparency and open standards are recurring concerns across strategies.

Some countries refer to increasing equity and inclusion by providing access to services previously out of reach to marginalised groups such as girls and women and people with disabilities (see Chapters 35, 37 and 38). In two of its digital development priorities, Denmark emphasises the need to focus on and promote women, girls and youth in the digital transformation (Danida, 2019[13]). The Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency focuses on information and communication technologies in the areas of democratic governance and social development (Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs, 2018[14]). The Netherlands puts local ownership and co-design at the centre of its engagement with civil society and strives to ensure that digital technology serves the public good.

There is strong awareness that access to public infrastructure such as electricity and digital communications is a prerequisite for digital transformation. AFD’s strategy emphasises the importance of la décarbonisation du numérique, where investing in the twin transitions (digital and energy) is an explicit priority. There appears to be less emphasis in strategies and digital-related finance (see Chapter 40) on the use of advanced technologies (e.g. artificial intelligence and blockchain), despite the growing importance of these tools in the digital economy and government. Belgium stands out for its focus on specific digital technologies for greater economic and financial inclusion, and on big and open data (FPS Foreign Affairs, 2016[15]).

Several strategies stress the importance of multi-stakeholder partnerships for greater impact and an inclusive digital economy, with most countries in Table 33.1 adhering to the Principles for Digital Development (n.d.[4]). At the regional level, eleven EU members signed a Letter of Intent to co-operate under the D4D Hub (2020[16]).

Several other DAC countries flag the importance of digitalisation in their development co-operation policy.5 For example, Finland’s strategy focuses on gender, education and climate issues with digitalisation and connectivity at its core (Finnish Government, 2021[17]; Saldinger, 2021[18]). Other OECD members such as Estonia encourage a user-centred approach, based on its own experience with e-government, and share expertise with countries in South Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa (Estonia, 2021[19]) (see Chapter 12).

Digitalisation can undermine governance in contexts where it was already weak. Development co-operation strategies on governance and civil society can play a complementary role to digital development strategies in shaping an inclusive digital future. For development co-operation to shape digital transformation, strategies and activities on governance and civil society will need to anticipate unintended consequences – and potential harms – of digital transformation for societies and human rights. Development partners are thus exploring the impacts of digital transformation on civil society, civic spaces, democratic governance, development progress and stability in fragile states.

The international governance community, including members of the DAC’s Governance Network, is grappling with how to support digitalisation and digital transformation and the governance of these issues in development. Initial research in Promoting the Digital Transformation of African Portuguese-Speaking Countries and Timor-Leste (2018[33]), suggests that ODA is likely best oriented towards consolidating analogue capabilities, enabling access to digital solutions through education and ICT literacy, and supporting safe and consensual digitalisation of public records (Box 33.2).

Civil society strategies can also mitigate some digital risks. Civil society can help countries improve digital governance, human rights and inclusiveness to overcome the risks of digitalisation. This includes strengthening digital laws to comply with international human rights law, building the capacity of officials and civil society in digital rights, reviewing risks for civic spaces, and engaging with digitally-operating civil society actors such as social movements (OECD, 2020[39]). According to the Netherlands, civil society has a role in ensuring that digital technology serves the public good, as a watchdog and as a partner in the design and implementation of emerging technology (Chapter 35). Engaging in multi-stakeholder dialogues on development, regulation and responsible use of digital technology remains pivotal. The US focuses on digital initiatives to deploy using a system-oriented approach to expand digital-related programming while recognising the increasing digital threats to the civic space (USAID, 2020[40]).

International development agencies support civil society organisations (CSOs) in building digital capacities and countering power asymmetries. For instance, Denmark supports CSOs’ digital resilience programmes (Danida, 2021[41]) and USAID supports training for at-risk journalists and activists, facilitates campaigns to sensitise individuals to the threats they face as Internet users, and finances civil-society-led policy and advocacy projects that promote Internet Freedom (USAID, 2021[42]; USAID, 2021[43]). The Netherlands, EU, Sweden and UK collaborate in supporting CSOs, such as via the Association for Progressive Communications, an international network promoting digital inclusion, human rights online, and Internet governance as a global public good. Such initiatives draw attention to digital support and other development-assistance programmes against activities that harm civil society, civic space and freedoms (CHRGJ, ISER & Unwanted Witness, 2021[44]). Belgium’s Ministry of Foreign Relations and Development Cooperation organised a Claiming Back Civic Space conference in 2019 at which civic space in the digital era was addressed.

At the same time, civil society organisations such as Privacy International suggest that digital development co-operation investments and projects must anticipate, assess and manage the potential harms and unintended consequences of digitalisation (Privacy International, 2020[45]). Privacy International emphasises the risk of “extensive support for surveillance in countries” or “security units equipped and trained to use controversial surveillance tools” that enhance digital authoritarianism.

With the adoption of the DAC Recommendation on Enabling Civil Society in Development Co-operation and Humanitarian Assistance in July 2021, DAC members recognise that more must be done to enable civil society actors to maximise their contributions to the 2030 Agenda, to leave no one behind, and to protect and strengthen democracy and civic space, including in this age of digitalisation. For instance, DAC members’ civil society teams have yet to explore partnerships with non-profit civic tech companies, especially those who can ensure that business practices adhere to human rights principles with strengthened safeguards for civil society and civic freedoms/spaces online. Through closer co-operation with non-traditional technology companies, development actors can also promote the development of “civic technologies” – including through open-source software – whose transparency fosters the protection of rights and values. For example, Votem (n.d.[46]) is a mobile voting system that supports both voter registration and voting by using end-to-end blockchain-based encryption. Companies like Kialo (n.d.[47]) support online debate-style communication through a deliberative discourse platform designed to present hundreds of supporting and opposing arguments in a dynamic argument tree.

Going forward, civil society needs to engage digital policy-making initiatives at international and national levels to contribute perspectives for the regulatory sphere and responsible use of digital technology. Denmark’s Tech for Democracy initiative brings together representatives from governments, multilateral organisations, tech industry and civil society.

Translating digital transformation commitments and strategies into sustainable digital ecosystems and tangible change is a work-in-progress for all international development actors. Just as partners’ demand for digital co-operation increases (see Chapters 6 and 7), ODA budgets are under pressure to respond to other development challenges accentuated by the COVID-19 crisis, inequalities, conflict and climate change (Ahmad and Carey, 2021[48]; OECD, n.d.[49]). Digital-for-development strategies that focus on inclusiveness, upholding democratic freedoms and using digital solutions to accelerate progress face the same challenges to being effective as other areas of development co-operation (GPEDC, 2020[50]; OECD, 2019[51]). As set out in the Busan Partnership for Effective Development Co-operation, success relies on being evidence-based and context-specific, taking a system-wide focus and aligning with country priorities and focusing on results (OECD, 2011[52]).6 International development co-operation on digitalisation can also become more accountable for applying effectiveness best practices (Miyamoto, 2020[53]; Castella et al., 2021[20]; Waugaman, 2016[54]).

The following excerpt from the report From Principle to Practice: Implementing the Principles for Digital Development (Waugaman, 2016[54]) sets out the challenges:

“While the potential is clear, the success of 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 programmes. Solutions too often reinvent the wheel rather than build 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 difficult to access and use for decision-making. […] we must do better, both to fulfil our own mandates and, critically, to deliver to the best of our ability for the people we serve.”   

Transferrable insights and lessons also emerge from experience with digital health, which appears to have made progress in identifying effectiveness challenges and good practices with broad-based support. For example the Principles of Donor Alignment for Digital Health (Digital Investment Principles, 2018[55]), WHO Recommendations on Digital Health Systems (2019[56]), WHO Global Strategy on Digital Health (2019[57]), and similar documents issued by UNICEF (2018[58]), PAHO (n.d.[59]) and the Asian Development Bank (2018[60]) underpin the progress of the ongoing digital health debate.

A comparative analysis of development co-operation case studies and other contributions by providers to this report uncovers strategic and operational commonalities in line with the international agenda for development effectiveness. These are:

  • Leadership buy-in, institutional capacity and guidance are critical for designing and delivering holistic digital strategies. The Norway and UK cases highlight the importance of raising awareness among leadership and policy teams and overseas networks about the role of digital technologies in enabling economic and social development. They show that building their organisations’ in-house advisory capability dedicated to digital development is crucial. The ambition should be to grow a network of digital development champions, advisers and policy/programme managers that help the development ministry or agency to better mainstream digital approaches.

  • Digital development strategies should manage for the risk of reinforcing exclusion. Sectoral projects using digital components exclude people who do not have access to mobile phones or cannot afford to pay for mobile data (Castella et al., 2021[20]). Moreover, during Internet shutdowns, digital programmes stall, which should be factored into programme and project design (ibid). South Korea stresses the importance of being familiar with countries’ regulatory environment before deploying digital projects (see Chapter 36).

  • Commit to system-wide interoperability. Digital projects tend to fail to translate into scalable and sustainable programmes especially when they duplicate themselves instead of building on robust platforms, infrastructure and shared services (Waugaman, 2016[54]). Fragmented and incompatible digital systems lead to inefficiencies, disruptions, and significant costs to society. The international development community needs to move away from investing in siloed systems and work to overcome barriers by finding alignment between partner country priorities and international development funding (see Chapter 34). Transparency issues include difficulty accessing basic information about existing partner-country digital systems and capacity to manage the high transaction costs of co-ordination (USAID, 2020[40]).

  • Peer-to-peer knowledge sharing is in demand, and it works. Working with digital transformation requires dedication to capacity building to enable sustainable technology-driven change (see Chapter 12). Colombia and the UK report that identifying, building and leveraging strategic policy and knowledge partnerships is key for supporting digital transformation. Leveraging its knowledge and experience in international co-operation, JICA partners with Japanese technology companies, offering proven digital solutions to partners (Sawaji, 2021[22]).

  • Join up for diagnostics and use existing tools better. Several bilateral providers, multilateral organisations and other bodies conduct digital diagnostics, finance, and use knowledge platforms and indices. Sharing evidence and support for multilateral diagnostics can mitigate the risk of proliferation and duplication.

  • Step up co-ordination and prioritise local ownership. An evaluation of Belgium’s digital-for-development strategy flagged the risk that the oversupply of digital projects fragments activities. The demand projects put on target audiences can decrease both the visibility and effectiveness of programmes and projects (Castella et al., 2021[20]). The Netherlands’ case study highlights the value of local ownership and co-design with users to meet their needs. Waugaman (2016[54]) identified the need for in-country technical working groups to ensure coherent policies and actions across development sectors that leverage standards and have flexible programme designs. The same report found that the absence of dedicated policies or staff expertise on digital and data privacy and cybersecurity was a barrier to inter-donor collaboration.

  • Long-term funding. Structural challenges include the short nature of funding cycles relative to the entrenched nature of the challenges that development funding seeks to address (Waugaman, 2016[54]). According to AFD, development co-operation should create funding models that build and strengthen the digital commons so that access to information and tools are sustainable over the long term.


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[1] OECD (2020), Summary Record of the 52nd DAC High Level Meeting - 1082nd DAC Meeting held on 9 and 10 November 2020, https://www.oecd.org/officialdocuments/publicdisplaydocumentpdf/?cote=DCD/DAC/M(2020)10/FINAL&docLanguage=En.

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← 1. See Reader's guide for definitions.

← 2. For more details on how development co-operation strategies are evolving see the case studies in Chapters 34-39 in this report.

← 3. The Principles for Digital Development were endorsed by 288 development actors since 2012 and offer a framework that can be applied to development programming to maximise efficiency, effectiveness and sustainability of investments in digital solutions. See: https://digitalprinciples.org/.

← 4. JICA is included in this count because it is currently updating its digital development strategy.

← 5. Six DAC members – Australia, Canada, Finland, Luxembourg, Slovenia, and Switzerland – refer to digitalisation in their overall policy.

← 6. For an overview of the Busan Principles for Development Effectiveness and the how the Global Partnership for Effective Development Co-operation maximise the effectiveness of all forms of development co-operation to the benefit of people, planet, prosperity and peace, see: https://www.effectivecooperation.org/.

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