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Free Software in international development cooperation

This article highlights the advantages of using Free Software in international development cooperation. It is part of a series about the basics of Free Software.


International development cooperation is increasingly digitised. Free Software thus is becoming an indispensable fundamental technology that guarantees legally compliant international cooperation and reuse, a technology that enables global scaling with simultaneous local adaptability. In order to tap the full potential of digital development cooperation, the FSFE demands that all software development (co-)financed by taxpayers' money be published as Free Software.

(I) Free Software as a cornerstone of international development cooperation

About international development cooperation

International development cooperation is concerned with the sustainable improvement of global economic, social, ecological and political conditions. International development cooperation strives for the UN sustainability goals and the empowerment of partners: Existing dependencies of development recipients should be reduced and new dependencies avoided at all costs.

Any independence resulting in turn requires the support of existing or the establishment of new local structures on site. Central problems should be solved or be made solvable locally, and prosperity should be made accessible and distributed appropriately. Many development policy initiatives and actors therefore rely heavily on working together with various local partner organizations, supporting them and, if necessary, integrating them into appropriate development programs.

Digital resources and dependencies

The focus of international development cooperation is increasingly shifting to the level of digital cooperation. Whether in agriculture, industrial production, health care or public administration, the development and maintenance of modern social processes is no longer conceivable without software. In this context, the global digital divide is almost identical to the global analog divide in social and political inequality. Traditional donor and recipient constellations remain almost unchanged, but development cooperation is shifting more and more into the digital realm.

As with analog development cooperation, digital development policy solutions can only have a lasting effect if existing dependencies are reduced and new dependencies are avoided at all costs. Current dependencies and central problems of the recipient countries arise from the following factors in particular: access restrictions to digital resources, lack of technical expertise, lack of translations and missing modification possibilities, the unequal distribution of digital products and hardware and the resulting global digital differences in power and ownership. At the same time, these are precisely the problems that can only be sustainably solved and taken into account locally and with the involvement of local civil society. And it is precisely these aspects in which Free Software excels over proprietary software and makes the decisive difference.

Problem: proprietary software

Most of these digital dependencies and problems are a by-product of the use of proprietary software. With proprietary software all rights of reuse and further development as well as modifications are reserved to the manufacturers. The roll-out of proprietary software thereby strengthens - unconsciously or deliberately - the dependencies of users in the developing countries to the currently market-dominating software industry from the present industrial countries. From a development policy perspective and from a sustainability perspective, however, access to hardware, software and empowering knowledge should be as open as possible for everyone. The use of Free Software offers exactly this basis for such an open access approach for anyone in software. In this article the basics and advantages of the use of Free Software in development cooperation will be examined in detail.

Solution: Free Software as a foundation of development cooperation

eGovernance, eHealth, digital agriculture and other digital services of international development cooperation are based on the use of software. Functional software thus becomes the basic technology of social organization as well as of modern administrative services. Free Software allows development investments once made to be reused around the globe without (further) license costs and without legal or technical restrictions. The simultaneous publication of its source code on public code repositories also enables one's own software development to profit from reusing, improving and republishing by other actors around the globe - the so-called "upstream"1. In terms of international cooperation, the freely licensed source code serves as a basis for organized or self-empowered knowledge multiplication and transfer. Free Software allows the development of digital cornerstones and provides international standards without creating new monopolies and dependencies. In the same way, one's own software development can benefit from existing publications of other Free Software2. Instead of constantly reinventing the wheel, Free Software allows all people to "stand on the shoulders of giants" at the same time.





Status quo: Free Software and international development cooperation

In 2014, the "Principles for Digital Development" were developed by the Digital Impact Alliance, who belong to the United Nations Foundation. One of the nine principles requires the publication of software, data and standards under free licenses (#6: "Use Open Standards, Open Data, Open Source, and Open Innovation"). The use of free licenses also has a positive effect on most of the other principles, including

The obvious interaction between the principles mentioned above and the underlying development goals, as well as the reusability of existing digital solutions, show that Free Software is an essential part of any sustainable digital development. Consequently, the UNICEF Innovation Fund for example, invests exclusively only in technologies that are Free Software 3.

Numerous implementing organizations and donors in development cooperation, IT service providers and international organizations have since adopted the "Principles for Digital Development Cooperation". Other initiatives are orienting themselves towards or referring to these guidelines, for example the "Principles of Donor Alignment for Digital Health". The signatories of both documents thus stand to benefit from the advantages of Free Software in international development cooperation.

However, despite all the positive developments in recent years, many national and international development cooperation organizations still rely on the development of proprietary software. Thus, they not only miss out on the advantages of using Free Software. As organizations financed primarily with public funds, they also contradict the demand for linking public funds to Public Software4. This is often done out of ignorance or the reproduction of existing procurement practices. In order to change these dynamics for the better, the FSFE is calling for all taxpayer-(co-)funded software development to be published as Free Software and highlights on this page the advantages of using and developing Free Software in international development cooperation.

(II) FSFE demands: Public code for publicly financed international development cooperation

Many European actors and initiatives in international development cooperation are supported or completely financed with public funds - by the European Union or its member states. In accordance with the "Public Money? Public Code! campaign, the FSFE demands that in all international development cooperation, any software development (co-)financed with public money be published as Free Software. This includes both internal workflows and software developed by and for local partners. This is the only way that we can unlock the full potential and the positive developmental impact that the use and development of Free Software includes. Especially in international development cooperation, code paid for by the people should be available to the people!

(III) Positive development goals by using and developing Free Software

  • Sustainable handover

    The release of software under a Free License5 enables a sustainable business and development model even after a solution has been handed over to the partner organizations, and offers unlocking the full potential of the digital resource: Since there are no license costs, no licensing restrictions or dependencies, Free Software can be reused and scaled without limitations - locally and globally.

  • Independence and ownership

    Via its license, Free Software offers the unrestricted possibility to further develop existing code and thus to adapt software. These adaptations can be done by users themselves or as a service undertaken by third parties. This allows, for example, local service providers to take over further development, maintenance and support of the software without restrictions. Free software allows maximum independence for service providers, service recipients, and partner organizations and can thus serve to build local IT expertise.

  • Growing the local economy

    Free Software offers legally safe possibilities for further development of existing code and modifications of software. In particular, the unrestricted possibilities of further development and localization by third parties enable the creation, use and development of digital resources on site. If local players are commissioned for further development or localisation of an existing software, this leads directly to the strengthening of the local economic power and the installation of local competence. Under certain circumstances, the expertise gained in this way can even be exported as a service6.

  • Cost control and transparency

    Due to the absence of usage restrictions and license fees, a successful Free Software solution can be copied or implemented without limitation. This can benefit the limited budgets in developing countries7. In particular, there is no danger of hidden costs as with proprietary solutions that are offered at a low price at the outset but could impose high follow-up costs or other uncontrollable price structures after their implementation and the resulting dependencies.

  • Flexibility

    The freedom to improve and reuse Free Software also enables international development cooperation actors on the donor side to achieve maximum flexibility and scaling of any self-developed IT solution without additional license costs8, 9: Good solutions from one place can be reused at another.

  • Localisations and translations

    In addition to software modifications, Free Software enables the independent and unlimited translation of existing software and documentation into any local language and adapting to cultural conditions. Such a localization can help to overcome part of the "digital divide" between English and non-English speakers10. Additional local modifications of the software to better fit into cultural conditions enable the inclusion of local companies and ultimately increase the adoption and acceptance of an IT solution by its local users.

  • Local adaption

    In addition to the source code and the language, all other content can be adapted to local conditions if the publication under free license is used consistently; for example, currency and measurement units or the visual language in use. Adapting software to cultural conditions can further help to promote understanding and local acceptance. In the same way, the software itself can be adapted for different local purposes, for example to specific business processes or different legal requirements.

  • Local partnerships

    Local partners can be involved already during early conception stages or in designing local modifications and implementations - as well as later in the translation, training or delivery of the software11. These local partnerships can be very helpful in incrementally introducing technologies, promoting adoption and facilitating the learning curve13. Ideally, a local market for the purchase of technical expertise gets formed and starts growing.

  • Competition

    Since Free Software may be modified for any purpose, this also applies to commercial use. Free Software promotes local and international competition by allowing existing solutions to be reused or to build services around existing solutions that can be offered locally without having to pay a "producer" any usage fee13. It also prevents the creation of a monopoly.

  • Mitigate legal issues: All adapted local solutions, modifications and further development of Free Software within the scope of the license are carried out globally in a legally secure area. No permission is required to create and distribute copies of Free Software, unlike proprietary software

  • Open standards

    Free Software offers the best possibilities to ensure cooperative global interoperability through global adaptability and reusability and the use of open standards14. Publicly provided open standards can be integrated by different vendors into their software and thus ensure communication between different services.

  • Security and quality

    The openness of the source code enables a "many eyes principle". As in science, the possibility of mutual control ensures high quality and often enables security problems to be found and eliminated quickly. Security problems may also be published and solved; users can thus be informed and warned immediately15.

  • Knowledge access and transfer

    Free Software is accessible everywhere in the world without restriction. The related documentation, training and knowledge exchange are also available globally without limitations. Local expertise can be built up through access to existing knowledge platforms.

  • Non-discrimination and equal access

    Results of Free Software developments are available for anybody worldwide. This brings us one step closer to the principle of "leaving no one behind" of the Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development.

The article was written by Erik Albers (Free Software Foundation Europe), Nico Lück and Balthas Seibold (both Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit, GIZ GmbH). The article reflects the opinion of the authors and does not represent the opinion of GIZ or of other institutions. The demand "Public Money? Public Code!" is a FSFE campaign and not of the authors.


  1. "Upstream" means all contributions by different authors. Usually, these contributions are implemented after a peer-review process as official improvements into the respective software environment. In addition to code contributions, these can also be translations, documentations or other contributions.
  2. In order to unlock the full developmental potential and strategic advantages of using Free Software in international development cooperation, the possibility of migrating existing system architectures and re-licensing past software developments should be considered. However, this article focuses on the demand to publish future software development as Free Software.
  3. https://www.unicefinnovationfund.org/about#open_source
  4. Compare https://publiccode.eu/
  5. Eligible are any licenses authorized as free licenses by the Free Software Foundation (https://www.gnu.org/licenses/license-list.html) or the Open Source Initiative (http://opensource.org/licenses).
  6. Examples for such positive economic developments are DHIS2 and OpenMRS
  7. The UN study "Breaking Barriers - The Potential of Free and Open Source Software for Sustainable Human Development" (PDF) lists case studies about the use of Free Software in different parts of the world. It says that "All projects discussed in this publication state that one of the main reasons for choosing FOSS over proprietary software is that no license fees need to be paid for FOSS." (p.5)
  8. BMZ Toolkit 2.0 – Digitalisierung in der Entwicklungszusammenarbeit (PDF), 4.3.3 “Open Source – Nutzung und Entwicklung freier Software”, p. 170
  9. Response of the German government on the questions by the Greens, answer 26: "The use of Free Software in public administration can have advantages for developing countries. Depending on the type of software, area of application and number of users, the use of Free Software can above all help to save costs and make IT systems interoperable, thus reducing dependence on providers who use proprietary interfaces and formats." (own translation)
  10. The UN study: “Breaking Barriers - The Potential of Free and Open Source Software for Sustainable Human Development” (PDF) lists multiple case studies in developing countries and within Europe, whose software success and adoption was only due to language adaptions as these projects aim at “getting non-English speaking communities to use computers.” (p. 6).
  11. BMZ Toolkit 2.0 – Digitalisierung in der Entwicklungszusammenarbeit (PDF), 4.3.3 “Open Source – Nutzung und Entwicklung freier Software”
  12. Compare “Free and Open Source Software and Technology for Sustainable Development” (Sowe et al., UNU Press, 2012), s.317: “Partnerships are even more important: partners who together define the problems, design possible solutions, collaborate to implement them and monitor and evaluate the outcome. [...] Introducing technology too fast, without clear goals that are negotiated by all parties involved, will eventually result in its rejection. FOSS technologies for sustainable development should be more evolutionary than revolutionary.”
  13. BMZ Toolkit 2.0 – Digitalisierung in der Entwicklungszusammenarbeit (PDF), 4.3.3 “Open Source – Nutzung und Entwicklung freier Software”, p 170
  14. Open standards are standards that are accessible for all market participants, that are usable and improvable. For detailed information see: FSFE – Open Standards
  15. BMZ Toolkit 2.0 – Digitalisierung in der Entwicklungszusammenarbeit (PDF), 4.3.3 “Open Source – Nutzung und Entwicklung freier Software”

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