Digitalisation makes projects more efficient, faster and more transparent – this is also true for the implementation of the Agenda 2030; in particular, digital technologies are often the only way to reach young target groups.

Currently, over 482 German development cooperation projects use digital components – to improve the administrative systems, education and health systems, to advise on digital transformation and numerous other topics. While the use of digital elements was previously an exciting trend, partner countries are increasingly demanding digitalisation as a modern standard.

What does digital by default mean?

The concept of digital by default describes the idea in which digital components support the implementation of every project. The approach does not stand for a fundamental obligation to use digital tools or methods in project activities. However, it reverses the burden of proof: if no digital elements are used, the lack of expediency of the use must be identified. This approach has been successfully implemented by the British Development Agency DFID since 2012, by the Belgian Development Ministry since 2016 and the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit GmbH (GIZ) since 2018. The Belgians have anchored this standard in their “Digital for Development” strategy of the Belgian development cooperation. DFID has also integrated the review of digital options into the conceptual phase of projects. In doing so, the agency aims to, among other things, enforce digital standards, such as the international digital principles, and save unnecessary costs for parallel software developments.

State of affairs

The digital strategy of the Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development defined five focus topics for the application of digitalisation in the German development cooperation. GIZ is implementing these topics based on the concept of digital by default. All operational areas have been working according to this principle since 2018. Other implementing organisations of the German development cooperation are reviewing this approach as part of the creation of their digital strategies. Initial experience highlights that the possibilities of using technology need to be reviewed and considered as early as possible in the conceptual phase of a project with a focus on the opportunities this affords. At the same time, support for the responsible persons with digital expertise is absolutely essential. Besides publications and guidelines, such as the “Principles for Digital Development” from leading donors and implementing agencies, discussions with digital experts is also part of the skills development process.

Implementation via the graduated model

Digital experts support GIZ projects in implementing the digital by default objective. For new projects, the technical and method department reviews the application of digital technologies and methods in the implementation as part of its involvement in reviews and concept development. In ongoing projects in the sector and global projects (GloBe) department of GIZ, expert digital consultants provide support within the scope of the <Digital Lab>. In this case, the projects receive cooperative advice and support on possible digital solutions in tandem. The consulting services are documented and can then be implemented by the team.

As part of the monitoring of the digital portfolio of the Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development, projects are reviewed for the use of certain digital technologies and methods as well as their relevance for achieving the goal. At the same time, the use of resources for these components is also assessed. As a result, the Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development can now, for the first time, provide a clear definition of a digital project. GIZ has developed a graduated model for the further evaluation of digital projects. This shows decision-makers as well as project owners where they stand and how to take the next step towards becoming more digital. The projects can also save time and money by more intensively exchanging their experiences and sharing technology solutions. In future, this will not only make it possible to determine how many projects are using defined digital elements or offering services, it will also allow the precise degree of digitalisation to be defined and the projects will be able to be assigned to specific digitalisation levels.