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The Chairman's Blog

FCDO boosts digital development with a new strategy to 2030 and promises of extensive new digital programming

March 18, 2024

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s digital development strategy for 2024 to 2030 was published today and sets out its approach to international development in the context of rapidly evolving digital technologies.

It’s a fascinating mix of wildly general strategic objectives, woolly tech visioning and quite specific and targeted priority areas.  All padded out with slightly underwhelming cases studies, nuggets of real interest and more real details of ambitious new programming that has been hinted at in the past.

It’s the detail of new programmes that seems likely to spark an initial response: a wave of hiring and restructuring by the FCDO’s main contractors who will spot ‘the next big thing’ even as they continue to unwind and stand down teams established for the last next big thing (ie Making Markets Work for the Poor).    

This author thinks it’s now just a matter of time before all the major UK development consultancies establish digital teams/practice areas.  It will be interesting to see which firms move decisively to tool up in this area, as the history of FCDO/DFID procurement suggests those who move early into emerging areas or geographies do well.

Real action on 4 priority areas by 2030

The FCDO’s commitment to digital is perhaps best seen in the firm and specific commitments it has made across 4 priority areas:

  1. Last-mile Connectivity – Basic connectivity in remote, low-income areas is fundamental to ensuring that the most marginalised can benefit from digital technologies. ‘By 2030 we will have supported at least 20 partner countries to reduce their digital divides by an average of 50% (halving their connectivity gap). ‘
  2. Digital Public Infrastructure (DPI) – DPI is the technical term for society-wide digital services, such as e-government and national payment systems, and is a key enabler for digital transformation of both government and the private sector. ‘By 2030 we will have supported at least 20 partner countries to transform the delivery of digital services at a national level through improved DPI. ‘
  3. Artificial Intelligence – The rapid evolution of AI presents both opportunities and risks, especially for developing countries that risk being left behind due to their weaker digital foundations. ‘By 2030 we will have created or scaled up at least 8 responsible AI research labs at African universities and helped create regulatory frameworks for responsible AI.’
  4. Women & Girls – The gender digital divide limits women and girls’ ability to benefit from digital development. ‘By 2030 we will have supported at least 50 million women and girls to participate safely and meaningfully in the digital world.

But these specifics are complemented by commitments in other areas too: 

  • the FCDO intends to scale up the cybersecurity capacity building and secure digital access with expanded activities across the world, including in India, the Indo-Pacific and Africa.
  • There are nods to an increased focus on programming that aims to support digital infrastructure and digital democracy and a new Digital Sustainability Programme is announced, which will include a focus on digital platforms for a sustainable economy, e-waste management, and renewable energy solutions for last-mile connectivity models.

What I’d like to have seen more of

It’s complex, and fast moving area with many moving parts but I’d have like to have seen more in the paper about:

  1. the ambition to mainstream digital tech, transformation and the use of data as ‘standard’ into all programmes, programme design and tender evaluation rather than some sort of optional add on.
  2. Digital diplomats & FCDO capabilities: engaging with FCDO on tech can be hit and miss given the relative paucity of tech and data expertise within an institution still famed for its Oxbridge/Arts/Generalists. The paper’s talk of refreshing networks, building partnerships, and offering new training courses doesn’t fill me with confidence that FCDO will actually have the capacity to be able to walk the walk on digital.  Digital aid programmes require officials at senior level – SROs – who get tech and hang around long enough to steer, influence and champion their programmes. 
  3. How technology can be used to facilitate or drive forward broad development objectives: such as the localisation agenda, by allowing humanitarian action to be delivered locally, by local actors through grant programmes and other vehicles that are built on digital platforms.
  4. the UK Government’s support to Ukraine on tech/digital which has been innovative and transformational across a broad front: from supporting delivery of public services, to anti-corruption and planning for reconstruction and from which much experience and innovative thinking has been derived.
  5. the connection between the UK’s domestic ambitions for digital transformation and how that supports and is supported by HMG’s international activities and aid.

Concluding thoughts

But the main substance of the paper is in the focus on new programmes: whole strategy will be underpinned, the paper states, ‘with a strengthening of our portfolio of programmes on digital development. This includes a wide range of sectoral digital programmes that deliver development outcomes in specific verticals such as education, health, social protection, financial services, agriculture, trade, and humanitarian.’

Taken together that’s all beginning to sound like a fairly big chunk of development spend and signals a significant tilt towards digital development.