Getting Familiar through Frameworks: Understanding the Digital Ecosystem for Improved Development Outcomes

This blog post is a reflection upon the discussion held during the recent Principles for Digital Development webinar, “Understanding the Digital Ecosystem: Frameworks and Approaches.” You can view the recorded event in full here.

On August 31st, the Principles for Digital Development hosted a panel event with Michelle Parker, Senior Policy Advisor at USAID and Beverly Hatcher-Mbu, Operations Manager at Development Gateway. The speakers introduced the USAID Digital Ecosystem Framework and discussed Development Gateway’s digital ecosystem assessment for UNICEF in Ghana and Thailand. Michelle and Beverely shared industry perspectives on the digital ecosystem and discussed the intersection of digital financial services, digital literacy, and the digital divide. Given the Principles of Understanding the Existing Ecosystem and Designing with the User, this conversation is timely.

The digital divide prevents marginalized and vulnerable populations from fully participating in the digital ecosystem due to barriers of access and use of digital products and services. Both USAID and Development Gateway began by acknowledging that while the digital ecosystem includes the digital economy, it is not solely defined by it. Furthermore, while digital technologies can advance freedom and transparency, generate shared prosperity, strengthen inclusion, and inspire innovation, a more interconnected world means that there are also risks within the digital ecosystem. The discussion highlighted the importance of the Understanding the Ecosystem principle. In order to successfully introduce new policy, digital goods, and projects, stakeholders must understand the actors and structures at play.

As development organizations and as a community of donors and investors with the shared goal of helping people progress beyond assistance, where do we start to make a dent in the world’s digital investment needs? To begin to try to answer this question at USAID, they launched the Agency’s first ever Digital Strategy in April 2020, which seeks to achieve and sustain open, secure, and inclusive digital ecosystems that contribute to broad-based, measurable development and humanitarian-assistance outcomes.

In drafting the Strategy, USAID took inspiration from the Principles for Digital Development, and put the Understanding the Existing Ecosystem principle at the heart of what they hope to achieve. To this end, they recently launched the Digital Ecosystem Framework to help USAID and the development community better identify opportunities and risks in a country’s digital ecosystem and inform decision-making about digital programming and investments. Better understanding the digital ecosystem not only helps consider how each component of that ecosystem may impact development and humanitarian assistance programming, it can also help identify infrastructure gaps that may require dedicated investment or opportunities to build capacity or enact catalytic policy reforms. 

Each country’s digital ecosystem will have unique dynamics and risks, which warrants specific and targeted engagement in order to foster more growth, implement better policies, close gaps in the talent pool and digital skills, or expand opportunities into new communities through digital technology. USAID’s Digital Ecosystem Country Assessment (DECA), a flagship initiative of the Digital Strategy, examines a country’s digital ecosystem to understand and identify development opportunities and risks. 

The DECA applies the Digital Ecosystem Framework pillars to frame the assessments from a country-context perspective and inform key decision-makers about how to better understand, work with, and support key components of that country’s digital ecosystem–of which include private sector stakeholders as they have the ability to influence many aspects of digital inclusion through connectivity and device affordability, and who are responsible for protecting sensitive user data. Private sector partners can certainly benefit from digital ecosystem assessments as the findings can uncover market opportunities and provide important information about the regulatory environment that may impact businesses. To date, there are three DECA reports available from Colombia, Kenya, and Serbia, with another ten assessments planned or in progress. Each DECA report provides key findings about the country’s digital ecosystem and high-level recommendations for USAID and country stakeholders.

Along these lines, Development Gateway’s approach to landscape assessments drives home that components of the digital ecosystem do not occur within a vacuum; the digital economy is not siloed from the rest of the system. Their approach considers decision making priorities, processes, stakeholders, tools, and data. With the understanding that both quantitative data and qualitative information will be taken into account. Furthermore, Development Gateway’s landscape assessments highlight the importance of context which is shown by the incorporation of decision making processes. In developing their frameworks, Development Gateway adheres to the Designing with the User principle and creates assessments with specific stakeholders in mind.

Digital development is integral to the overall development of low and middle income countries. To aid this, USAID and Development Gateway have created tools to help develop a thorough understanding of each ecosystem. With the USAID Digital Ecosystem Framework, digital rights are given the same level of importance with the digital economy and infrastructure. Development Gateway’s approach to digital landscape assessments magnifies context specifics previously overlooked in the implementation of policy and digital goods. We encourage Principle community members to take a deeper look at both the USAID Digital Ecosystem Framework and Development Gateway’s publicly available digital ecosystem landscape assessments.

This blog post is a reflection upon the discussion held during the recent Principles for Digital Development webinar, “Understanding the Digital Ecosystem: Frameworks and Approaches.” You can view the recorded event in full here.

Beverly Hatcher-Mbu

Operations Manager at Development Gateway

Beverley Hatcher-Mbu is an international lawyer with experience in project implementation, client management, policy analysis and data protection. Focused on connecting client needs to technical, policy and privacy solutions, Beverley manages DG's work in Haiti, supports DG's work in the extractives industry, and leads assessments of country data use landscapes. She also advises on data governance and protection issues across DG programs. Ms. Hatcher-Mbu holds a Juris Doctor from George Washington University and a BA cum laude in Political Science from Wellesley College.

Michelle Parker

Senior Policy Advisor at USAID

Michelle Parker is a career Foreign Service Officer with the US Agency for International Development (USAID), currently serving as Senior Policy Advisor in the Bureau of Democracy, Development, and Innovation’s Technology Division. She manages the implementation of USAID’s first ever Digital Strategy, launched in April 2020. Ms. Parker is a Council on Foreign Relations Term member and former International Affairs Fellow based in the RAND Corporation, where she authored multiple products on the role of International Development in security challenged environments and civil military coordination. She has an MS in Conflict Analysis and Resolution from George Mason University, and a BA in Political Science from Georgia State University.

Akshika Patel

Akshika works as the Associate for Principles for Digital Development. She provides support from logistics to external partner communications. Akshika holds a Masters in International Affairs from Columbia University and a BA from the University of Washington.