Be Collaborative

Be Collaborative: Time is up for just talking the talk

Being collaborative means sharing information, insights, strategies and resources across projects, organizations and sectors, leading to increased efficiency and impact (DIAL). This Principle for Digital Development brings all the others together in practice, but how should digital development experts apply the Be Collaborative Digital Principle in partnerships? At the recent ICT4D Partnerships Conference, the event sponsor DIAL (the Digital Impact Alliance) gathered experts for a fireside chat on the Digital Principles and rethinking local engagement and partnerships.

Early into the discussion, a major theme on how to improve the impact of partnerships in development and humanitarian response is to move on from talking the talk to walking the walk. Essentially, DIAL stewards a set of Principles that were created by hundreds of development actors and stakeholders nearly a decade ago. They are a set of best practices for designing and implementing development programs, but now it is time to reevaluate who is involved and, ultimately, leads, these initiatives. When it comes to partnerships, we need to double down on figuring out what “doing the work actually means.

Nanjira Sambuli, a member of the DIAL Board, offers practical questions you might ask in consideration of being collaborative in local partnerships:

  • At what step in the decision-making process do you speak? To whom? How do you factor in who’s not been incorporated into this process?
  • Have you taken the time to actually figure out what needs to happen in the community that you are working? Does the proposed solution address the needs of the beneficiaries? Is it what they want? Is it what they have identified for themselves as a need?
  • Have you cultivated trust with these communities to actually hear their honest opinions about what is and is not working in development?

Nanjira feels that in the development and ICT for development space, decisions are made in a top-down approach, with donors and Western NGOs parachuting into communities, whose input and needs have not been considered in the ideation and design phase. She claims, “I think we will always risk sometimes getting to a point of pointing this stuff out and fetishizing it and having nice sound bites, but I think it’s time to live by the fact that we need to start stepping in and that’s the most important thing anyone can bring to strengthening partnerships.

While Nanjira focused more on partnerships with the communities, the conversation shifted towards ways in which one or more of the Digital Principles could be applied to building everyday partnerships with other organizations, Nora Lindstrom, Global Lead for Digital Development at Plan International and Digital Principles Advisory Council Chairperson, stated that there are specific Principles that are more accessible than others. For digital development generally and partnerships in particular, she feels that Be Collaborative and Reuse and Improve are the best starting points for the community to share and learn from each other’s work, including failures. Reusing and improving is about taking the work of the international development community further than any organization can do alone, which obviously necessitates partnerships and collaboration. Integrating these Principles into our daily work gets a little tricky, considering that development actors are often in competition for finite funding and resources. Thus, Nora stated, Appealing to the Principles of Reuse and Improve and Be Collaborative can be really helpful for advancing partnerships. And I think that’s something one would hope that donors would take on board in the sense that these calls for funding aren’t for the most innovative new thing but rather how can we build on what’s there and reuse and improve?

Although implementers and practitioners cannot control our donors funding decisions, Nora also advised using the Digital Principles as a common framework for prospective partner organizations in order to establish alignment in values, approach, and standards.

While the Digital Principles can be a strong foundation for forming practical partnerships, one must also consider the various challenges that push back against creating more local leadership in digital development projects. Oftentimes, the status quo of international developments current systems and processes prevent this from happening. When this topic was posed to Peter Njuguna, ICT4D Specialist from Finnish Development NGOs (Fingo), he raised the excellent point that people are not always consciously aware of and actively using/involving existing structures and forums in the countries where we work; whether that is the government, civil society, private sector or otherwise. On a day-to-day basis, however, things can be a bit different. It is one thing to form a partnership in a formal way through a large project, but there’s a lot of opportunities for smaller scale partnerships and collaboration.

These types of smaller scale partnerships and collaborations come with challenges of their own. Nanjira pointed out that everything – from how organizations are structured to what resources are available – create challenges in establishing local leadership and encouraging thoughtful collaboration. Yet, the biggest challenge seems to be how we’ve historically worked in siloes. For example, a civil society network may have strong groundwork, but is not adequately resourced to do more collaborative work. As a result, another entity or organization with more funding may come into the coalition with superficial “design with user” approaches rather than allowing local experts to lead the work.

This has put us in a very unfortunate style of resourcing, Nanjira says, from philanthropy, development, cooperation, and elsewhere in putting people in a competitive rather than collaborative setting. This echoes Nora’s point about needing to change the competitive nature of international development resourcing in order for more effective partnerships and collaborations to take place.

It seems to me that the friction between competing for the same funding and the desire to be collaborative is akin to what happens when an immovable object is struck by an unstoppable force. Unfortunately, those of us working in the international development space may feel like we are just along for the ride. By having these sort of top-down, prescribed, global level policies/practices in place we are missing out on some real opportunities that might come from the bottom-up country level partners and leaders.

When asked what we are really leaving behind, Peter states quite poignantly: There are definitely opportunities that we are missing, I think the list would be endless. And definitely, I think one of the things that we are missing out on is letting partners and local leader organizations fall in love with the problems and not the solutions. So, we are not letting them think deeper, which would ensure continued innovation around technology solutions.”

This serves to highlight the importance of strengthening local leadership and why it has become a key goal for many organizations iNGOS, donors, private sector, etc. and why partnerships have been the key theme to CRS ICT4D Partnerships Conference.


The above is largely based on the DIAL led session titled “Be Collaborative!: A Fireside Chat on Principles and Partnerships” from the ICT4D Partnerships Conference that took place January 12, 2021. This session was led by Michael Downey, Director of Community at DIAL, with speakers including Nanjira Sambuli, DIAL Board Member and Research & Policy Analyst; Nora Lindstrom, Global Lead for Digital Development at Plan International; and, Peter Njuguna, ICT4D Specialist at Finnish Development Ngos (Fingo). Watch the full session to get the whole discussion and to continue the conversation head over to the Digital Principles Forum! Also, be sure to tune into Pulse on the Principles – a podcast and webinar series covering the intersection of technology and development! Pulse on the Principles features conversations with digital development experts discussing successes, challenges, and the potential for putting the Digital Principles into practice. 


By: Paul S Wiedmaier, ICT4D Knowledge Management & Communications Specialist, Catholic Relief Services