The importance of digital transformation in the development sector

Feb. 16, 2023

Despite the significant potential of digital technologies, the international development sector has been slow to embrace them as a core competency.

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Well executed digital transformation can positively impact communities - and populations - at scale and speed.

The world has changed significantly in the last few decades and so have the tools we use to make it a better place. With the rise of digital technologies, it is imperative for the international development sector to embrace digital as a core competency, not just as an area of work.

Digital technologies have the power to bring about a profound impact on the world's most pressing problems, from poverty and hunger to inequality and environmental degradation. For example, mobile technologies have transformed the way we deliver health services, financial services, and education to remote and marginalised communities. In agriculture, digital solutions are revolutionising the way farmers work, providing them with the information they need to make better decisions, and connecting them with markets to sell their produce.

However, despite the significant potential of digital technologies, the international development sector has been slow to embrace them as a core competency. Many development organisations still see digital technologies as just one of many tools they use to achieve their goals, rather than recognising them as central to their work. They focus on business as usual rather than embracing change or disrupting the status quo. This mindset is holding back the sector's ability to create truly transformative solutions and maximise the potential of digital technologies to drive progress.

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The success of digital innovations for remote, low-resourced environments depends on collaboration and creative problem solving.

So, what does it mean to embrace digital as a core competency? It means recognizing the importance of digital technologies in development work and taking the necessary steps to integrate them into all aspects of the organisation. This includes everything from the way programs are designed and implemented, to the way data is collected and analysed, and the way organisations collaborate and share information.

It is critical to approach the use of digital technology in developing countries with a view towards empowering local communities to build their capacity and leverage local knowledge. Without this, digital implementation risks perpetuating power imbalances and reinforcing existing inequalities. Instead of seeing local communities as passive recipients of technology, they should be seen as active partners and co-creators in the development process.

This means taking a bottom-up approach that involves engaging with communities to understand their needs, building trust and ensuring that the technology being used is culturally and socially appropriate. It means involving local communities in the design and implementation of digital solutions, and providing them with the training and support they need to use and maintain these technologies.

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Co-design sessions: empowering people to take the leading role in the design of their own solutions

It is not for development agencies to determine if people are ready for technology. Our role is to give all people options so they can make their own choices and determine how to move forward. For this to work, we must take a strengths based approach that prioritises the capacity, skills, knowledge, connections and potential in individuals and communities.

By taking this approach, development organisations can help to build local capacity, foster local ingenuity and create solutions that are truly sustainable. This not only benefits local communities, but it also enhances the impact of development programs and contributes to the long-term success of the digital revolution in developing countries.

In fact, the best thing we can do is create access and capacity for the upcoming generations of digital natives to tap into the potential of online technologies. By doing so, we exponentially expand the opportunities for youth to engage in creative problem solving and the development of solutions to their own challenges. When we create opportunities for individuals and communities to step into their own agency, this is development work done well.


For development organisations to truly embrace digital, they need to invest in the skills and capabilities needed to make the most of these technologies. This means building a digital-first culture, attracting and retaining staff with digital skills, and supporting them with the training and development they need to thrive.

The international development sector needs to embrace digital as a core competency to maximise the potential of these technologies to drive progress. This requires a shift in mindset, investment in skills and capabilities, and a focus on integration at all levels of the organisation. With the right approach, the international development sector can leverage digital technologies to create transformative approaches and make a lasting impact on the world's most pressing problems.

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