Whose Digital Principles Are They Anyway?

Earlier this year, I was offered the role of Chair of the Digital Principles Advisory Council (DPAC). The Principles for Digital Development (Digital Principles), are nine best practice guidelines for how to integrate technology into international development and humanitarian programming. Since I started working in digital development, they have served as a benchmark for how to design and implement responsible and effective technology-enabled initiatives. I was honored to accept the position of DPAC Chair.  

Since 2016, the Digital Impact Alliance (DIAL) has stewarded the Digital Principles, encouraging the digital development community to drive the initiative. To this end, the first DPAC was established in 2019. I sat on the first Council, and now Chair the second. The purpose of the DPAC is to provide expert advice and guidance to shape the evolution of the Digital Principles, and to reinforce DIAL’s accountability to the community, ensuring DIAL is fulfilling its responsibilities as stewards and responding to the shifting needs in the digital development community. 

This is no easy task. The history of the Digital Principles reflects that of the international development and humanitarian sector at large. They were developed collaboratively, but primarily by larger international donor and multilateral organizations. The first 54 endorses, in 2015, were primarily Global  North donor and multilateral organizations who convened at a variety of development industry events, including the CRS ICT4D conference, M&E Tech, and the mHealth Summit (see the complete list of founding endorsers in the “From Principle to Practice” report). Today, there is significantly more variety amongst endorsing organizations, but 58% are still based in either Europe or North America.  

For me, this raises two questions. One, does the history of how the Digital Principles were formulated make them irrelevant to today’s world? And two, how can we continue to make the Digital Principles community more inclusive? 

Regarding the first question, I do think the Digital Principles remain relevant. I have never seen them as strictly defined, and most definitely not as a tick-in-the-box exercise. Rather, I’ve seen them as conversation starters, key aspects to think through and consider as we introduce technology to our work. It’s not always possible to reuse and improve, but we can consider allowing others to do so to our innovations. Having a strictly open approach may not be feasible, but we can nevertheless look to collaborate and contribute to the common good.  

Having said that, the Digital Principles, as they stand, do reflect a bit of an old worldview. A common question I get is whether they should be revised. This is something the new Advisory Council has yet to discuss, but that we should be open to.  

This links back to the second question: how can we make the Digital Principles community more inclusive? Neither DIAL nor the Advisory Council can, alone or together, revise the Principles; it needs to be a community effort. So how do we make sure that the Digital Principles community is diverse and inclusive, and that any potential revision or decisions leading to it, is done collaboratively: with the “users”?   

The Advisory Council some ideas. For example, we’re exploring how we could establish local or thematic chapters around the world to expand the Principles community and ensure diverse groups of people can engage with and have a say on the Principles. 

But this is not a one-way street. We need people within the community to engage and take ownership of driving these discussions forward.  

Collectively revising the Principles would be huge undertaking. And, with endorsements having increased 271% over the past five years – particularly within the African continent – is there really a need?  

Instead of blowing everything open, I’m toying with the idea of tweaking each of the Principles without fundamentally changing them. Could we talk about designing with the users, in the plural instead of the singular, and stress intersectionality in the guidance? Could we encourage actors to be data-informed, instead of data-driven, in recognition of data gaps and bias in data collection and analysis? And when we seek to understand the existing ecosystem, could we stress the need to analyze power relations?   

What do you think? Would you like to join us in tweaking the Principles? Then head to the Digital Principles Discussion Forum and let us know what needs to be tweaked (or changed!) and how you would like to be engaged in the process.  

Nora Lindstrom

Digital Principles Advisory Council Chair

is an international development professional with over a decade of experience on three different continents. She is currently Senior Director of ICT4D with CRS, where she oversees the agency’s use of technology for increased programmatic reach and impact, and drives knowledge exchange on digital development through the ICT4D Conference.