When we use technology in development projects, where do we turn for guidance—especially when the tech world changes so quickly? In the past, agencies like UNICEF have published general guidelines for “digital design”—but there have been few truly global, sector-wide resources that offer clear advice on tech use.
Now that reality is changing, with the launch of the new Principles for Digital Development. The product of consultations with 15 of the world’s leading donors and implementers—including USAID, the US Department of State, the World Bank, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation—the Principles are a set of “living” guidelines that promote responsible use of technology in development projects, and draw on (in the words of the Principles’ core resource) “the many hard lessons learned” from past efforts.
This week, Souktel brought its insights on the Principles to DFID’s “Digital4Development” summit, sharing the stage with global non-profits like Save the Children, strategic consultants like Accenture, and multinational firms like Unilever. Souktel’s CEO focused on two Principles in particular—“Design with the User” and “Build for Sustainability”—both of which have defined the organization’s work since its start. To show how these Principles guide Souktel’s work, he chose an especially challenging use case: The launch of a mobile job information service for Somali youth.
The Somali Youth Livelihoods Program aimed to link close to 10,000 young Somalis with skills training and work. Funded by USAID, the 3-year project was delivered by EDC, Souktel, and local partners across the Horn of Africa, and used mobile technology extensively—to reach remote communities in a region with few good roads. Somalia’s unique characteristics—no central government, an isolated labor market, and poor infrastructure—meant that technology couldn’t be “copy/pasted” from somewhere else: It needed to be designed directly with local end users.
Drawing on their own unique experience building tech solutions in the conflict zone of Palestine, Souktel staff traveled to the Horn of Africa to work on-site with Somali peers. The team hired Somali tech counterparts—building a permanent local staff team—and held more than 20 focus groups with end users. They visited field sites to stress-test each mobile solution, and worked directly with the region’s leading mobile networks, private businesses and government ministries. Most importantly, they didn’t make a one-time, one-week trip: The blended Souktel team of local and expat staff maintained a constant presence in the communities where the technology was being used—listening to users and learning what worked (and what didn’t) on a daily basis.
Designing with the User was the first step to success; equally important was Building for Sustainability: In the project’s final year, Souktel worked with EDC to set up a local entity that would manage the mobile platform which Souktel had developed. When the project ended, the new entity charged youth and employers a nominal fee to access mobile content—and it launched with built-in capacity and contacts to seek out private funding. The software itself was also designed to ensure easy hand-over and uninterrupted service: When the project closed out, the mobile platform carried on.
Five years later, the mobile job-find service counts close to 20,000 users and is managed entirely by an independent Somali team. A mix of user fees, private funding, and mobile network partnerships covers running costs and ensures sustainability. Meanwhile, community users know that the custom service isn’t a copy of a Kenyan idea—it’s a genuine Somali solution. Through informed decision-making (rather than one-size-fits-all logic), the Digital Principles helped ensure that tech and development worked together to achieve a shared goal.