Leonie Le Borgne and Matthew Williams ask:
Are aid organisations ready to respond to a growing and dangerous digital divide?
The last century has been characterised by the advancement and spread of technology. The reach and adoption, particularly of information and communication technology (ICT) saw a sharp rise in the 1990s and has grown exponentially since. In 2000, 6.5% of world population was online. By 2015, this had increased seven-fold, to 43%. Projections for 2020 are that 57% of the world’s population will have access to mobile broadband.
Much like climate change which is often referred to as a ‘threat multiplier’, technology could be called a ‘vulnerability exacerbator’. Developments in technology reflect and perpetuate existing dynamics – the widening divide between rich and poor, old and young, rural and urban, the left and the right.
In what is commonly called the ‘digital divide’, those left behind by advancements in technology are disproportionately female, rural, poor, illiterate and/or elderly. Globally 58% of all those considered ‘offline’ are women. In the UK alone, 75-90% of all jobs require some computer use – meaning that technologically illiterate people have a harder time finding work. In developed countries, 81% of populations have internet access, whereas 75% of the continent of Africa is offline. In economic terms, the gap between haves and have-nots is also stark: 70% of all robots are bought by five nations (USA, Germany, China, South Korea, and Japan) and the majority of drone technology is owned by 8 nations (some of the above + India, Israel and Turkey).
In Africa, connectivity levels are not likely to stay low for long. The 10 youngest populations are all in Africa  (spearheaded by Niger which has a national median age of 14.8), and the youth booms associated with these population rises are promising for the widespread adoption of technology. In the coming years, countries like Nigeria with a large, tech-savvy middle class will drive the increase in the overall online population of Africa though disparities will still leave many nations largely off the grid. Countries currently excluded from global markets, due to instability or conflict, are likely to be further marginalised if communications technology is not prioritised in their path towards development.
Aid & Tech
The aid sector is not known for being techy. Uptake of cutting edge technology has been slow and reluctant. Like all other parts of the economy however, this sector will need to keep up with technological change in order to stay relevant.
Where the uptake of tech has worked at scale, it has often been outsourced to the private sector – shifting data management, security, and IT to for-profit counterparts. Though this has allowed for more efficient delivery, reliance on the private sector has come at a price: aid organisations are losing control over what is increasingly becoming aid itself.
Humanitarians and civil society activists globally, pride themselves on speaking up for those without a voice, for advocating on behalf of those suffering. In the future, aid agencies (we mean this to include national charities as well as international efforts) will have to put technology and digital inclusion at the centre of operations. On the other hand, technology and increased connectivity could enable communities to speak for themselves and have more control over the services they receive.
In times of crisis, technology has been used successfully by aid agencies to assess levels of destruction and vulnerability, access crisis-affected people, track response efforts, and communicate more quickly:
1. Social media has allowed for more democratic, innovative and effective campaigning. Particularly for smaller organisations with less disposable incomes, technology has cut costs without reducing public engagement.
2. Crowdfunding technology has allowed for effective fundraising and mobilisation – e.g.: during the European Migrant Crisis. Such grassroots movements have allowed for ‘unusual suspects’, people who aren’t humanitarians by profession, to come together and bring technical skills towards an effort. The use of internet platforms can be lauded for bringing together more varied groups of actors, working together in the pursuit of a common goal, and arguably giving aid more directly, without much bureaucracy.
3. Fintech – or financial technology—has allowed for giving to be more direct (from donor to recipient), and especially in strong networks of religious or diaspora communities, these tools have helped create strong and stable funding bases. Recent developments in blockchain currencies are sweeping the sector, nurturing hopes for more transparent and accountable aid delivery.
Looking ahead, aid agencies will need to further prioritise technology when looking to achieve long-term goals of human progress and development. There are pitfalls, naturally – technology should not be seen as a quick fix for larger, endemic issues of poverty, corruption and war. Nevertheless, in paying particular attention to those excluded by technology, we ensure that we are building a truly inclusive society of tomorrow, both at home and abroad.
*This article is based on findings from the report The Future of Aid: INGOs in 2030, written by the IARAN – a network which helps aid organisation study and better prepare for the future.
 One perspective: Parker, B. 2017 Security lapses at aid agency leave beneficiary data at risk
 Lewis, Renee. 2015. Grass-roots response to Calais refugees outpaces governments’, aid groups’
 One example: Quinn, Ben, 2017, WhatsApp proves harbinger of hope for Somali families on the brink of famine