Our work in international development


Last month, we told you about our work with the Government of Madagascar and the World Bank. Today I want to tell you more about our work in the field of international development, and our plans for the future.

Understanding a new set of needs

Over the past year, more and more governments in the Global South, development banks and other donors have been asking us about accelerating digital government.

Perhaps catalysed by commitments from the African Union, the African Development Bank, the World Bank and many others, we’ve heard leaders and practitioners say things like:

  • “I need to reduce the time and cost for citizens of accessing public services.”
  • “I need to improve the way government works, and make the public sector more efficient.”
  • “I need to make public services more transparent to help fight corruption.”
  • “I need to build our internal digital capabilities so we don’t get left behind.”
  • “I need to know how to fund and govern digital projects more effectively.”

These needs are similar to those expressed by some of our existing public sector clients. But given acute infrastructure challenges, significantly lower internet penetration, deeper digital divides and (sometimes) greater skills gaps, we can’t assume the answers are the same. We wanted to understand how our experience and services could be relevant in an international development context. Put simply, we needed to do our own user research.

Over the last six months, we’ve spoken to more than 40 government ministers and officials, donors, tech startups, and peer organisations.

Six months of research

Meeting Gordon, a senior civil servant in Kigali
Meeting Gordon Kalema, a senior civil servant in Kigali

In May, we accepted an invitation from the Rockefeller Foundation to a roundtable at the Transform Africa Summit on Accelerating Digital Government in Africa. At the roundtable, we heard from digital ministers from Rwanda, Ethiopia, Senegal and Ghana.

Roundtable at Transform Africa Summit
Roundtable at Transform Africa Summit

Since June, we’ve also had the privilege of working with the Government of Madagascar and the World Bank.

Workshop with civil servants in Madagascar
Workshop with civil servants in Madagascar

We’ve also partnered with Caribou Digital, a peer organisation we respect and admire, with deep expertise in research and analysis on inclusive digital economies in emerging markets.

Sonja, Stef and Emily with Kishor from Caribou Digital in Antananarivo
Sonja, Stef and Emily with Kishor from Caribou Digital in Antananarivo

New models, new leaders

It may have become a buzzword, but we believe there’s a real opportunity for governments in the Global South to leapfrog. We’ve blogged before about the speed of delivery in Peru and Argentina. There’s an opportunity for governments that are just embarking on digital transformation to learn from the mistakes of others, and for all governments to pioneer new models that meet their citizens’ needs.

For instance, we’re inspired by Irembo – the Government of Rwanda’s public service platform, which includes around 100 different services available online and via USSD. Irembo has invested in building a network of 4000 service points, taking inspiration from mobile money agent models. That means that people without internet access or devices of their own can access public services from agents closer to where they live, saving multiple long, costly trips to government offices. Some service points also offer opportunities for citizens to attend classes and build their own digital literacy skills.

While in the UK government, Public Digital’s founders talked about making public service delivery “digital by default”. We believe the future world leader in making public services “mobile by default” will be in the Global South.

As a result of our research, we believe that:

  • most governments can benefit from digital, even when many of their citizens are not yet online or using a mobile phone
  • there’s a role for governments to accelerate online inclusion and digital literacy by delivering high-quality user-centred digital services, which makes the investment in a mobile phone worthwhile
  • there’s benefit in using good service design to redesign public services to better meet user needs, even if some of those services remain analog for the time being
Emily presenting in Madagascar. The slide text says: “Start adopting agile, user-centred ways of working.”
Emily presenting in Madagascar. The slide text says: “Start adopting agile, user-centred ways of working.”

Our approach

Based on our work so far, it’s worth reiterating five aspects of our approach that are especially applicable to helping create real, sustained impact in the international development sector:

  • Teams are more important than tech; digital transformation should start with building teams and changing ways of working, not buying new IT systems. We focus on empowered, multidisciplinary teams, and radical organisation change rather than, say, blockchain or IoT for development.
  • We coach; we don’t code. We help clients find, hire and train their own in-house digital talent.
  • Government teams should build to share, not buy into Big IT. Governments in different countries are not competing for the same users, and have much to benefit from sharing. We encourage governments to code in the open, to borrow from one another, and to avoid vendor lock-in. A number of countries have used code from GOV.UK – that’s a success.
  • Defined standards are better than disconnected digital projects. Too often in international development, we see a proliferation of well-intentioned but disconnected digital and IT projects. For instance, in 2015 a single donor reported investing in over 1,800 different mobile apps and services. When services are fragmented like this, it’s almost impossible to build a consistent user experience, or to design for interoperability.
  • We believe in thinking big, but starting small. To win a mandate, and attract great talent into government, it’s important to articulate a bold, long-term mission. That doesn’t necessarily mean starting with a multimillion dollar programme straight away, or setting up a new government agency tomorrow. Start with a small team, on a small project; learn and scale up from there.

What’s next

Over the coming months, we will continue to support the team in Madagascar, and work with more governments in the region.

We’ll learn more by speaking with government officials, practitioners and researchers interested in digital, governance, and international development. And we plan to build our affiliate network in a wider variety of markets. The next issue of Signals, our twice-yearly periodical, will include some fresh new perspectives on international development.

We’re very excited about the opportunities ahead. Please get in touch for a coffee or a call if you’re interested in learning more or in working with us.

Emily Middleton
Director of International Development

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