Published on Digital Development

Why the World Bank endorses the Principles for Digital Development

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 This post is the first in a series about the Principles for Digital Development. Future entries will unpack the individual Principles through case studies of successes and failures.

The World Bank recently endorsed the Principles for Digital Development, a set of nine evolving guidelines to help practitioners integrate technologies in development projects. With this endorsement, the Bank joins dozens of development organizations including DFID, USAID, and UNICEF in recognizing the importance of supporting technologies in operations through human-centered, contextually appropriate, collaborative, safe, and sustainable design.
These Principles seek to mitigate challenges that pervade the digital development ecosystem: an abundance of pilot projects  that rarely scale, redundant and bespoke tools built in silos, rigid program design and implementation, and a lack of coordination among stakeholders, to name a few. The Bank’s endorsement of the Digital Principles reflects a commitment to support and implement ICTs in a way that avoids these trappings and furthers its twin goals of boosting shared prosperity and eradicating extreme poverty by 2030.
Why is the Bank endorsing these Principles?
The Bank endorses these Principles partly because they align closely with key recommendations from the 2016 World Development Report. While recognizing the potential of ICTs to support development outcomes, the report urges us to think carefully about the analog elements surrounding a digital deployment. Several Digital Principles reflect this concern, reminding practitioners to devote time to understanding the ecosystem in which a technological intervention is implemented, to think pragmatically about sustainability plans, and to address privacy and security.

Additionally, the Bank’s twin goals require a “measured approach” towards development that is mirrored in these Principles. Indeed, many concepts of the science of service delivery - challenging practitioners to collect and use data more iteratively, to course-correct projects according to these evolving insights, and to adopt adaptive project design methodologies - are echoed in the Principles, and they continue to catalyze meaningful discussion and action within the community that has coalesced around them. In fact, insights from these stakeholders can help us at the Bank discover how these ideals can be implemented in practical and meaningful ways (see resources on the Principles website).
The Principles also represent an organic extension of the Bank’s own objectives. Its ICT sector strategy, for instance, encourages the adoption of agile methodologies (such as iterative and data-driven approaches) and user-centric design, which are among the nine Digital Principles. These approaches are highlighted in Bank initiatives like CitiSense, a summit for city practitioners to foster human-centered cities, and Launchpad, a program to inspire a new generation of climate innovation centers using collaborative methodologies like those advocated for in the Principles.
Finally, while much work remains to be done to mainstream these ideals across the Bank’s portfolio, examples of Bank projects that embody these ideals are already surfacing on the ground. Indeed, forthcoming posts will highlight how the Principles are reflected in programs including participatory waste management in Mozambique, open data for global energy innovation, data-driven transport planning in the Philippines, and elsewhere.

Where did these Principles come from?
The Bank’s support of these Principles is a recognition of the inclusive and consensus-driven process through which they have been articulated. For over a year, a working group including donors, implementing partners, and other practitioners has convened regularly to debate and refine the Principles in collaborative meetups that convened over 100 organizations across four continents.
More importantly, the Principles build upon previous guidelines and good practices issued by the broader community, including UNICEF’s Innovation Principles, the UK’s Government Digital Service principles, and the Bank’s own Open Development Principles. The Digital Principles encompass similar ideas but are agnostic to any single organization, making them relevant for all practitioners.
What’s next?
Endorsement of these Principles is the beginning of a process, reaffirming the Bank’s commitment to seek to embody the ethos of these ideals in its culture and operations. Through various media, including this blog, we will spotlight programs that embody these Principles. We’ll continue to participate in activities to promote them in more concrete ways, including learning about how other donors are operationalizing these Principles (UK’s Department for International Development, for instance, will soon require vendors to adhere to the Principles in procurement processes). At the same time, teams like those at the Operations Policy and Country Services, Learning, Leadership, and Innovation, President Kim’s Delivery Unit, the ICT sector unit, and others across the Bank are exploring concrete mechanisms to encourage, scale, and mainstream innovations that align with the Digital Principles.
The Principles themselves will likely evolve as we grapple with the complexities involved in putting them into practice. Nevertheless, the Bank is excited to participate in this critical conversation and to advocate for a more nuanced, contextual, and adaptive digital development that is vital to reducing extreme poverty and boosting sustainable growth.
Take action: Learn about the nine Digital Principles and join the Working Group
Read “From Principle to Practice”, a flagship report about operationalizing the Principles


Samhir Vasdev

ICT innovation specialist

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