Since the mid-20th century, there have been numerous international projects using digital technology as a means of affecting change in developing countries, a concept known as “information and communication technologies for development” (ICT4D). Such projects have ranged from optimising industrial efficiency with computer systems to increasing general levels of education by providing digital learning software to marginalised communities.

However, many of these projects encountered difficulty throughout the years. In fact, they sometimes do not even reach beyond their pilot stage, let alone manage to scale up. This made us wonder: How is it possible for so many projects to fail despite the often significant resources available and the considerable expertise of everyone involved?

Reinventing the wheel – A stumbling block for development

Looking at many recent digital development projects in the educational sector, we concluded that many of them fail because of two common reasons:

  • They attempt to achieve their goals by using unproven or bespoke technology.
  • They focus on the technology rather than the needs of the learners and their communities.

These oversights are surprisingly common with many digital development projects, as many charitable NGOs in the digital sector focus too heavily on cutting-edge technology and not enough on the user experience. Thus, they often end up repeating the same mistakes and learning the same lessons as their predecessors. However, while the organisation may consider a failed project a “lesson learned”, the people and communities who stand to benefit from the project are affected more significantly.

Standing on the shoulders of giants – Laying out the Principles for Digital Development

Thus, when we were invited to the launch of the Principles for Digital Development Conference in Washington, D.C., we were sceptical at first. The conference was called to present 9 principles endorsed by organisations such as WFP, WHO, UNDP, USAID and UNICEF in an attempt to guide the digital development efforts of non-profit organisations throughout the world. But we wondered: would such a diverse group be able to come up with a set of common principles that would adequately address the central problems of ICT4D projects?

When we were actually shown the principles during the conference, however, our interest was piqued immediately. From the very start, the Principles for Digital Development encourage charitable organisations to “design with the user” (no. 1) and “understand the existing ecosystem” (no. 2). To our delight, this puts the focus of the 9 principles chiefly on the user’s experience and environment, facilitating the same holistic approach that has been at the core of Avallain Foundation’s work from the start. “This approach has always been the most important aspect of our work”, says Dr Martina Amoth, Director of Education for East Africa at Avallain Foundation. “Both as a Kenyan and as the person in charge of communications between our team and our end users, I was thrilled to find that the focus on the user has received such a prominent position among the 9 principles – and to find so many ICT4D organisations endorsing this approach. I knew we had to join this effort.”

Avallain Foundation endorses the Principles for Digital Development

Despite the practical difficulty of employing all of the 9 principles simultaneously, we came to the conclusion that endorsing them was the perfect way to increase the impact of ICT4D efforts throughout the world. “At Avallain Foundation, we have always worked on the basis of our own strong set of principles for digital development” says Miriam Ruiz, Executive Director of Avallain Foundation. “And working with a number of like-minded organisations in the past, we have realised just how important it is to spread such principles. We are glad to join this effort at optimising digital development so we can learn from each other’s experiences and further improve the positive effect our work can achieve in the challenging environment of the developing world.”

For this reason, Avallain Foundation has decided to fully endorse the Principles for Digital Development, adhering to the 9 principles in all future projects and joining the conversation to let others benefit from our experiences. We hope to make digital development throughout the world more effective and more efficient, both at the pilot phase as well as during scale-ups. Thus, we hope for all ICT4D organisations to come to a point where resources are used to their fullest effect and mistakes serve as a learning experience for the entire ICT4D community.


Miriam Ruiz