Digital development and the role of INGOs—a primer from Oxfam

How can the use of ICT4D be improved to maximize digital dividends in development projects? And what role do international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) play in an increasingly digital landscape? These are broadly the questions that an Oxfam discussion paper published last week seeks to address, focusing on the organization’s experience in the Horn, East and Central Africa (HECA) region.

The paper, entitled “Digital development: What is the role for international NGOs?” and authored by Matt Haikin and George Flatters, draws from research based on a comprehensive literature review but, most interestingly, from insights gained through interviews with different stakeholders, from Oxfam staff and practitioners with other INGOs, through donors and funding partners, to civil society activists and ICT4D experts. The early findings from these interviews were discussed and put to the test in a workshop and an online survey, from which a series of lessons learned, opportunities and recommendations emerged.

As acknowledged by the authors, many of the findings are known topics in the ICT4D field and some, for instance, can be mapped to the Principles for Digital Development—the set of guidelines developed by international development donors and implementing partners to foster the institutionalization of best practices in the use of technology for development. I’ll try and summarize below some of the recommendations and calls for action arising from the report, but since I run the risk of not doing it justice, you should definitely take a look at it yourself for some other interesting reflections. So… here comes the inevitable infographic!

Digital development: What is the role for international NGOs?

Now, the reason why Oxfam commissioned this kind of research is not only relevant for the HECA region, but for the INGO sector at large:

… to understand better how technology can help to develop long-lasting and impactful solutions, paying particular attention to methodologies being applied, programme design, enabling environments, business models and ethical considerations. We have started to witness how ICT can unlock new options to reach people. A number of initiatives and pilots at Oxfam have proven how the introduction of ICT saves time and money, while enabling the organisation to be more accountable and have a wider reach, even in some of the world’s most fragile contexts. (p. 5)

And actually that is why I decided to write about this report in the first place—the wider applicability of its findings and recommendations to other regions as well, and especially and in a more general sense to INGOs working on the ICT4D field.

By the way, you may be wondering by now where the Americas fit in this post (since that’s the region I’m supposed to be writing about)… Well, let’s take this as an introduction: in my next post, I’ll address a case study from the Americas in relation to some of the issues raised above. Stay tuned!



Interested in reading more? Also check out the paper I referenced in the infographic, by P. Arora and N. Rangaswamy (2013).


  1. Lisa Smyth

    Great post Guillermina – thank you for providing this really simple, but very useful, overview of a report most of us won’t get a chance to read in full – all the recommendations are well-known, but do often get overlooked in the rush to develop projects quickly and with donor concerns in mind.

    The collaborative M&E is a big one, as so many aid projects overlap, but often are not managed by the same managing contractor or NGO, and so a lot of duplication emerges. Though, of course, there is an issue with sharing and responsible use of data that can make collaboration externally difficult – I read this article a few months back and it makes a lot of interesting points about the use of data in aid work:

    • Guillermina

      Thanks, Lisa! Interesting resource, I will definitely take a look. Good point you make: you’re certainly right about the use of data, and I would add metadata to that—I didn’t want to go into details, but it’s surely a major aspect to tackle in relation to collaborative M&E. I guess the “openness” advocated by both the authors of the paper and the Digital Principles is only one side of the issue, and there’s risks to consider in this sense… Anyway, thanks for the comment!

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