Small businesses require technology to launch ecommerce platforms, policy makers need data for tracking constituent needs, health facilities use technology to store medical records, and global supply chains utilise digital solutions to track products around the world. No matter the sector, technology has served to improve it in some way, and the development sector is no different.
With the annual Global Digital Development Forum wrapping up in May, Liz Nerad, Palladium Director of Digital Solutions and Transformation, is struck by the theme that digital work can no longer be siloed within technology units or IT departments. Rather, it must be part of every role and sector. “Digital is a sector unto itself, but it’s also at the intersection of nearly every other sector we’re working within, whether it’s health, economic growth, agriculture, or climate,” she explains.
The Forum, which for the second year in a row was hosted virtually, brought together thousands of international development and digital development professionals across the world. With focuses on technology to mitigate climate change, building local capacity for digital ecosystems, and harnessing the power of emerging technology, the forum hosted sessions that explored digital development challenges and opportunities.
“One of the really exciting things about the Forum was that it brought together people from diverse sectors with different skillsets, from software engineers to data scientists and ethnographers to policy makers,” Nerad says. “In our new world, digital isn’t just an IT component but a broader way of doing work and a means to bring together more voices and perspectives to achieve our goals.”
Working Within the Digital Ecosystem
The digital economy is here to stay, she notes. “All of our development programs are using digital tools, and working within that digital ecosystem is unavoidable, but it doesn’t mean it will be an easy transition everywhere.”
"We must ask ourselves what the context is in which a digital solution would thrive and provide opportunity."
She shares the example of supporting small-and medium-sized enterprises in developing countries. The digital economy is an ideal solution for helping to grow small businesses, and in turn the economies in which they work, but it’s not that simple. “It requires equipping businesses with the tools and training they need to make use of technology; it means supporting the policy environment at the government level; and ensuring that the right infrastructure is in place for the logistics and fulfilment of the supply chain of the digital economy.”
Everything is interconnected, Nerad adds, and properly implementing and working within the digital ecosystem requires a catalyst within the system to align the many groups together towards a common goal.
Avoiding the Pitfalls of Tech for Tech’s Sake
While there’s plenty of opportunities for the international development sector to move into the future with help from digital technology, there are also plenty of challenges that could hinder it. Nerad warns that much of the discussion at the Forum was around understanding emerging technologies and perils of using them without ensuring they work within the context needed.
“We get ahead of ourselves thinking about the new and shiny without first thinking about the problems technology is trying to solve,” she describes. “This is really the crux of digital and development; identifying the problem and then identifying the technology that could solve it within that context.”
Nerad adds that acknowledging the context is critical, especially with new technology, and ensuring that not just the infrastructure is in place to support that technology, but that local teams receive upskilling and have the capacity to engage with it in a meaningful and helpful way. “We must ask ourselves what the context is in which a digital solution would thrive and provide opportunity and enable a broader outcome, rather than implementing technology for technology’s sake.”
At the end of the day, the development sector is and was for humans, and while digital solutions are a critical part of improving development outcomes, they cannot be the only solution. “We have to remember that humans are at the centre of our work and while there’s a lot of excitement and energy around automation, AI, and other technology, humans will still need to play an integral role in ensuring that digital solutions are built considering privacy, inclusivity, and without bias,” adds Nerad.
Digital solutions may be the way of the future for the development sector, but humans are still at the heart of the work and must ensure that implementing technology continues to be done in a way that provides value for the communities in which organisations work.
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