The term “stakeholder” is a standard element of most development project proposals and evaluations, though it’s seldom defined. Usually, the stakeholders section is a list of groups who will benefit from, or participate in, a project. It turns out, however, that the term has an unambiguous origin and meaning. In Strategic Management: A Stakeholder Approach (1963), R. Edward Freeman laid out a conceptual framework of business ethics and management that includes moral and ethical values, rather than just financial returns. He described stakeholders as “those groups without whose support the organization would cease to exist.”
In digital development work, that’s a pretty big blanket, covering government, buyers, vendors, value chain members, users, beneficiaries, partners, and even competitors. In fact, for today’s systemic, multi-sector initiatives, the full spectrum of stakeholders is too broad to list. The expansive scope, the drive to scale, and the growing assertiveness of capable government leaders in many developing countries are raising the importance of stakeholder alignment and collaboration. This is evident in the Principles of Digital Development, three of which urge organizations to play nicely with others (1 – Design with the User, 6 – Use Open Standards, Open Data, Open Source, and Open Innovation, and 9 – Be Collaborative).
Development organizations are beginning to shift to a more collaborative support role. This involves implementing practices like embedding staff within government agencies, creating more re-usable assets, mentoring local counterparts before the transfer of key tasks, and holding more meetings in the local language. These practices amount to a shift from a stakeholder approach, which Freeman frames as groups supporting the organization, to a collaborative approach, in which the organization supports a group (typically a government or PPP). A more supportive and collaborative approach may eventually give way to another development model, but in the meantime we’ll accomplish more by working together.