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Digital tools deepen the power imbalance in aid. Here’s how to fix that

Digitisation may be useful for donors and humanitarian organisations, but their application can look very different from the perspective of people in crises.

(Sara Cuevas/TNH)

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Aid groups are driving deeper into digitalisation through biometric verification, satellite mapping, and social media analytics, all of which purport to bring faster and cheaper aid. 

Yet when designing these tools, a cost-benefit analysis for the user is rarely considered. That often leaves people living in the midst of crises to deal with a new system that may be inconvenient, offers them little direct benefit, and forces them to take on more risk.

This is a mistake. 

Humanitarians must ensure that the people who are actually going to use the digital tools to access goods and services get to participate in their design. They must also consider how such tools often deepen – rather than reduce – power inequalities in a humanitarian system where those who are trying to rebuild their lives and livelihoods still have far too little say in decisions that affect their lives. 

Recently, a biometric system for Syrian refugees was introduced in Jordan to offer stronger assurance to donors that cash assistance was reaching the right recipients. However, it turned out that older people, and those with eye conditions or limited mobility, struggled to use the biometric registration. Most preferred the previous ATM cards. The goals of delivering greater oversight and accountability for donors clearly clashed with those of appropriate and inclusive assistance. 

What are the biases and assumptions within it? Do aid recipients actually want to move to this new system of registration or verification?

Narratives around having to do “more with less” and the need for stringent monitoring requirements – as well as greater remote management due to COVID access restrictions – have encouraged such digitalisation trends. Many of these technologies offer scale and distance: tools to remotely assess and manage from afar, or to disburse funds rapidly during a response. Benefits also include more granular, real-time monitoring of programmes that donors see as key for reducing aid diversion and fraud, and that can be a necessary condition for further, more flexible funding. 

The risks of digital compounding exclusion

Recent data breaches of aid users’ personal information and the passing of refugee biometric data to hostile governments have drawn important attention to digital risk in the humanitarian space. What’s often still missing, though, is a critical consideration of the impact such applications will have for inclusion.

Humanitarians need to ask how a technology can be adapted to fit a particular context, and what the limitations are in understanding a place or group of people through data. What are the biases and assumptions within it? Do aid recipients actually want to move to this new system of registration or verification? 

These questions are often overlooked, with considerations centering more on technical processes. Inclusion means engaging with the particular needs and wishes of marginalised groups – and being prepared to offer an alternative means of administering support if aid users do not consent to using digital tools, such as biometrics. This is far from standard practice.

There are plenty of examples where digital technologies have furthered inclusion in crises – just not yet many from the formal humanitarian sector. Participatory mapping, for example, is one way communities are able to advocate for better services and recognition. Many of these more grassroots initiatives – for example, “Geochicas”, “MapBeks”, and Map Kibera – come from outside the sector, and cast the scope of their work more widely. Social media, too, plays an increasingly prominent role for many people affected by crises and for civil society groups, yet the humanitarian sector has not effectively engaged with such spaces.

Groups that have prioritised inclusion, including WeRobotics’ Flying Labs Network, Localization Lab, and the ‘Signpost’ initiative that uses social media to provide information for displaced people, stress that in-person and mixed-methods approaches are still needed to mitigate the exclusions that digital tools can amplify. For the humanitarian sector, these kinds of approaches are up against a lot of disincentives – prohibitive cost, a lack of contextual expertise, and short-term funding cycles.

But as research by the Humanitarian Policy Group recently outlined, the costs of not doing so are high too. By failing to address such concerns, humanitarians risk entrenching a set of tools and ways of looking at the world that are unsuitable for the most-marginalised people and deepening their exclusion in aid. 

Edited by Jessica Alexander.

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