Technology, Equality, and White Privilege in Aid - System ChallengesJan 05, 2024
Every year the CDAC Network brings together a range of original thinkers to explore difficult, messy challenges confronting humanitarian action. In 2020 during the early months of the global Covid pandemic, I had the privilege of virtually attending this conference and recording the ideas that were presented.
The topic under discussion was the role technology should play in humanitarian action and the extent to which it improved outcomes or actually reinforced deeply embedded issues of white privilege and amplified inequality among those receiving aid. The thought leaders challenged the easy assumptions about the benefits of both Western led aid missions and the value of technology to solve problems in humanitarian action.
What was striking about this discussion is how seldom individual technical inventions (e.g. a new mobile app) or single practical fix entered the conversation. In fact, there was broad consensus that the problems and any potential solution were far more complex and difficult.
Throughout the two days of discussion, it was the underlying ecosystems that were in the spotlight. They questioned whether aid or technology use could be 'fixed' without thinking and acting on these bigger systems based challenges. In these two short reports, I sought to capture key elements of that far reaching discussion.
Advocacy strategist Nanjira Sambuli says “if the fundamental premise is wrong, the details won’t matter.” A conference titled Accountability in the Age of the Algorithm: Championing Pathways
to Inclusion in Tech-Driven Futures might well be expected to focus on details, offering a series of well-measured discussions on the issues that new technologies bring to crisis response and community development. Or ... it could open with a fundamental challenge to the systems of inherent privilege on which today’s aid sector is built.
How badly is technology broken? It has been held up as a transformational tool, one capable of lifting aid up to meet its growing twenty-first century challenges, a key part of the hope that aid could do more and do it better. And yet, today there are a growing number of doubting voices, a recognition that technology is not neutral and there are dangers as well as benefits to the rapidly expanding use of these ever more powerful tools.
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