Scale & digital public goods: Realizing the effectiveness principles for longer-term development

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Editor's note:

This blog was originally published by the Global Partnership for Effective Development and Co-operation.

The effectiveness of development co-operation has been front and center of the global development agenda for two decades, notably growing in attention and commitment following the adoption of the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness in 2005. The idea of aid effectiveness is based on the premise of “why provide/why receive” development assistance if it does not advance development. The threat of setback to development from the tsunami of COVID, climate change, refugee crisis, rising food prices and shortages, and the war in Ukraine, makes even more urgent achieving the most out of scarce development resources.

Country ownership and donor harmonization, broadly accepted at the policy level as key elements of aid effectiveness, have proven difficult to implement. Two elements that could help move these principles closer to reality are scale and digital public goods.

Scale projects designed on country priorities

Much of development assistance is delivered in the form of thousands of small, one-off donor activities – well-designed 1- to 5-year activities that provide benefit to a select population but are generally not sustainable beyond the end of the project and fail to roll up into long-term development. This “project proliferation” is documented in a new World Bank study which reports that in 2019 the average size of 190,323 ODA activities was $0.8 million.

Donors, public and private, should undertake fewer projects and for longer periods of time, building the planning on a vision to reach scale but commencing implementation with small iterative steps until the concept is proven, as explained by Ann Mei Chang in Lean Impact.

A donor project at scale designed to meet a country, not a donor, priority lends itself to country ownership and to donor harmonization as both country stakeholders and other donors are more likely to buy into the activity. This approach need not entail a single project, but can involve a series of strategically linked activities designed around a common objective, as demonstrated in the appendix of a draft USAID paper that presents a decade of USAID and other actors’ experiences in anti-corruption programs in Ukraine.

Digital Public Goods (DPGs)

COVID, having shifted the digital transformation to warp speed, highlights not just the benefits but the essentiality of gaining digital capabilities. Despite isolation during the pandemic, students with digital access and literacy continued to learn; workers digitally literate and with digitally adaptable jobs were able to continue working from home; governments with digital platforms, such as India and Togo, were able to build on that digital capability to rapidly extend payments and services, even to those in the last mile.

Most donor investment in digital development is in single-use digital components of projects. What would be more beneficial for country ownership and donor harmonization – and sustainability and aid effectiveness – is donor support and investment in digital public goodsDPGs are software solutions that are open-source, open-standards, open-data, open-content, and help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. Digital public goods provide a number of benefits:

  • inclusion – they are available to everyone
  • efficiency – the next developer does not have to reinvent the wheel
  • knowledge sharing – the underlying code is publicly available
  • innovation – access to what exists can feed the next innovation
  • security – transparency supports accountability and security

Digital development is a priority in the recently announced ambitious G7 Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment, which includes the commitment to support “goods and services necessary for open, secure, reliable, and interoperable information and communications technology”.

A notable event for DPGs is scheduled in conjunction with the September U.N. General Assembly, the launch of the Digital Public Goods Charter. Aligned with the Secretary General’s Roadmap for Digital Cooperation, the purpose of the charter is to garner commitments from governments, donors, business, and civil society to invest and support digital public goods – in further pursuit of the SDGs and aid effectiveness.

Looking ahead at the 2022 Effective Development Co-operation Summit and the 2030 Agenda deadline, all actors must advance the effectiveness agenda through scaling country-led/prioritized projects as well as investing in digital public goods.