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Winning Insights: Lessons Learned from This Year’s Digital Development Awards

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Dec 1, 2022

The USAID Digital Development Awards (the Digis) recognize and celebrate USAID projects and activities that embrace the Agency's strategic goals of improving development and humanitarian assistance outcomes through the responsible use of digital technology and strengthening open, secure, and inclusive digital ecosystems. This year’s Digital Development Award winners showcase USAID’s exemplary work in digital development around the world: 

  • USAID/Colombia: Rural Finance Initiative, implemented by Chemonics, for developing a mobile phone-based system for rural smallholders and urban-based, low-income groups to conduct real-time, peer-to-peer financial transactions. 
  • USAID/Regional Development Mission for Asia (RDMA): Digital Asia Accelerator, implemented by DAI’s Digital Frontiers, part of the Digital Connectivity and Cybersecurity Partnership (DCCP), for educating and training businesses and individuals, especially youth, on digital safety and cybersecurity best practices in Southeast Asia and Mongolia.
  • USAID/Zambia: President’s Malaria Initiative (PMI) VectorLink, implemented by Abt Associates, for deploying a suite of digital tools to support map-based data collection, monitoring, and capacity building to improve malaria control programs at the sub-district level.
  • USAID/Georgia: Economic Security Program, implemented by DAI, for providing training on information communication technology to the country’s workforce and connecting local artisans to online markets.
  • USAID/Nepal: Building Hope Along the Karnali River Basin (BHAKARI), implemented by MercyCorps Nepal, for customizing mobile phone applications and interactive voice responses to manage, monitor, and educate remote farmers and low-income individuals about cash and voucher assistance programs during emergencies. 

All five winners are role models for new, nontraditional, or even other traditional USAID partners who hope to leverage technological innovations to deliver on their development objectives. 

Five important lessons from these projects rise to the top:

1. Form a coalition between public, private, and non-governmental organizations that offer complementary strengths. 

In implementing these projects, established partners Chemonics, DAI, Abt Associates, and MercyCorps Nepal either included local or international technology firms in their consortia or contracted with technology firms during the project to develop and implement the tools they needed to reach local communities. Complementary strengths ensure that each member of the coalition has a clear role to play. For example, as part of the USAID Digital Asia Accelerator, DAI contributes its expertise in cybersecurity; Microsoft and WhatsApp provide businesses with credible campaign and training content; and local banks, technology firms, and business associations adapt knowledge products to be culturally relevant.

2. Design your intervention with the user in mind.

Where possible, the latest Digi winners drew upon one of the key Principles for Digital Development: they engaged their stakeholders in the process of building, testing, and redesigning tools until they effectively met user needs. By designing with the users, and not for them, they built digital tools to better address the specific context, culture, behaviors, and expectations of the people who will directly interact with the technology. For example, in Nepal, BHAKARI invited program participants to support each step of the social and behavior change communication (SBCC) message design process, from issue identification to message formation, which has led to the success of the SBCC campaigns.

3. Consider how your intervention can serve marginalized populations and meet them where they are. 

Development interventions are only as strong as their ability to reach everyone in the target population, and yet marginalized populations—such as women, youth, people with disabilities, ethnic and religious minorities, and rural families—are increasingly left behind, contributing to a vast “digital divide.” Digi winners have implemented projects that specifically seek to close the digital divide for one or more of these populations, by using technology that is currently accessible to them, such as mobile phones and non-Internet-based messaging. For example, with its holistic approach to stakeholder engagement, the USAID/Colombia Rural Finance Initiative scaled access to digital financial services beyond urban areas to reach low-income urban and rural customers, as well as microentrepreneurs in the informal sector, women, and Afro-Colombians.

4. Get creative in your reuse and improvement.

Successful digital development interventions can either develop something entirely new or use creative methods to improve upon existing technology and digital approaches. As per the Principles for Digital Development, “reusing and improving is not about designing shiny new objects or limiting a technology to internal use; it is about taking the work of the global development community further than any organization or program can do alone.” For example, the USAID/Georgia Economic Security Program supports the development of individually owned and operated e-commerce sites for small and medium enterprises and connects artisans to a global marketplace with online shops on Etsy.

5. Find ways to scale or sustain your impact.

Another Principle for Digital Development is “designing for scale means thinking beyond the pilot and making choices that will enable widespread adoption later, as well as determining what will be affordable and usable by a whole country or region, rather than by a few pilot communities.” All the Digi winners have scaled their impact beyond a small community group and embedded methods of sustaining this impact within their intervention designs. For example, USAID's PMI VectorLink in Zambia has built the capacity of the current National Malaria Elimination Program and stakeholder workforce and has been supporting the Zambian Ministry of Health to integrate project files into their routine data systems for expanded, long-term application of the datasets. 

To learn more from these inspiring projects, please follow the USAID Innovation, Technology, and Research Hub’s Technology Division on Twitter and check the Digital Development Awards website.