Hindsight is 2020: Reflecting on the Digital Principles This Year and Ahead
It’s said that hindsight is 2020 and as I reflect on the past year, that phrase resonates more deeply than it used to. The Principles for Digital Development team accomplished many programmatic objectives in spite of the adversities over the past twelve months: we produced several new resources meant to help international development practitioners better embed the Principles in project design, hosted numerous workshops and trainings for partners and donors all over the world, participated in multiple events advocating for more ethical digital practices, launched a podcast and webinar series, and helped shape the first global virtual conference our sector has seen. Yet, despite all our programmatic successes, they feel to be just that; just programmatic successes determined by quantitative, fixed metrics that fall short of addressing the harrowing realities 2020 forced us to confront, and I find myself fixated more on what that means for the future of the Digital Principles and our sector.
Somehow, 2020 has simultaneously brimmed with consecutive catastrophes as well as monotony and fatigue. When COVID-19 hit, it was as though every email I sent and received started and ended with, “I hope you’re doing well in these unpresented times…stay safe and healthy!” But who found themselves well at this time? Many people and families were rendered vulnerable and social inequalities that were not new, but rarely acknowledged, were plainly exposed. I was privileged to maintain a job and was lucky to work on a team who had long embraced digital and remote work. And so, life continued, the Digital Principles program trudged along, and our sector adapted within the constraints of the new normal.
Then about halfway into 2020, the Black Lives Matters movement in the United States and around world gained extraordinary momentum; again, ripping back the curtain of complacency and reminding everyone of very real and very old racial inequalities cancerously baked into every level of our systems and structures. Again, these were neither unknown nor new truths and calls to decolonize aid and development were published on every platform, website, and organizational statement. Again, I reflected on my own privilege, how I had engaged with racism, benefited from it, even supported it though action or inaction, and how that had may have reflected in the Digital Principles program.
As I grappled with these questions, I was informed that my supervisor, the Director of the Digital Principles, was leaving the organization: the same year we were re-opening nominations for the Digital Principles Advisory Council and transitioning a new cohort. This raised concerns about the governance and future of the program and triggered insecurity about my own ability to carry it forward. Allana had spearheaded the program for three years, and it had largely been only the two of us guiding it; how was I to figure out how to steer a 200+ strong community, while implementing change I knew needed to happen within it, on my own?
But only the moment we believe we are powerless is when we are, and with the support of many on the DIAL team and several engaged Digital Principles community members, I am now cautiously hopeful about 2021, with new hopes and refreshed commitment to change what I am able in our governance, programming, and communications.
Since its inception, major metrics of success for the Digital Principles has been the number of endorsers and published products, but this has become outdated as the Digital Principles’ mission and community evolves. There must be a new focus on who makes up our network, how they are engaged, and how their insights and contributions inform our investments and projects.
We remain committed to pursuing diverse and underrepresented voices in our leadership, contributors, and partners, but also plan to reexamine the ways in which we engage them. This means as we build out our resource library, training programs, and decide on future investments, seeking out guidance of local communities and allowing them to make decisions that directly affect them. I hope starting in 2021, the program can transform so that local communities and organizations may own their narrative, be equal owners of the Digital Principles, with equal leadership in content creation and priorities, rather than passive recipients of our trainings and resources.
I don’t tell myself for a moment that 2021 or the proceeding years will be easier, and I already anxiously anticipate a wave of programmatic and aspirational challenges. It’s been a year of uncertainty, major change and discomfort, but with all of that comes growth: and good growth is neither easy nor linear. Hindsight is 2020, and I’m thanking the year for what it has been before closing that chapter and looking ahead to the next.