Technology Benefits International Development Only if Innovation Meets the Needs of the Vulnerable

FROM: Sabin Selimi , Zenebe B. Uraguchi - 08. November 2022

Most things may change more, and some fundamentally, over the next decade as a result of innovations. Such a change includes how development practitioners conduct their work. Technology is likely to benefit the development sector. Innovation must, however, be suitable, which means it must address the needs of those living in developing and transitional economies.

In areas of international development like communications, knowledge management, project/program planning, measuring results, and monitoring, technology is already being used successfully. Technology will most certainly continue to play a significant influence in how development work is carried out in the future.

The question is: Are we ready to embrace change and use it to support inclusive and sustainable development?

Some fundamental changes are already here...

As technological innovations and advancements pile one on top of the other, it can be difficult to tell the difference between "real" progress and "hype." Will we all spend our days in the metaverse before the end of the decade? It's challenging to forecast the future. But this time, we'll focus on two innovations that will impact global development: artificial intelligence (AI), as well as open-source data and the internet in low-Earth orbit.

They might alter the way we interact with people, target the vulnerable, and engage with global audiences. We must look beyond the horizon to the new roads that lay in wait in order to give development practitioners the autonomy they will need to face the challenges ahead.

...influencing the way we work but also posing new challenges

AI may be able to help with some of the most important issues facing international development. A growing number of development professionals are turning to AI for more effective solutions.

A few examples include supporting farmers’ adaptation to climate change, predicting disease outbreaks, and making crowded urban centers more livable. However, there is a chance that this potential will be abused, misused, or have unanticipated consequences.

Let me be more practical. For instance, a device meant to monitor crop health could be misused to observe and repress underprivileged and vulnerable groups. The study of AI and ethics has developed in response to these problems. However, because AI development and deployment are still mostly centered in rich economies, little attention has been paid to the ethical challenges that arise when using AI technologies in a developing economy.

Due to the fact that international organizations commonly work on development projects in other countries, there are multiple degrees of responsibility and accountability to take into mind. This problem is made worse by the fact that AI systems are frequently created and maintained by external suppliers. The people whose data is utilized to power the AI system and for whom it is designed to work are maybe the most important things to consider.

The majority of AI projects for global development are currently still in the research, development, and piloting phases. Most rely on a small number of easily accessible data sources, such as survey data, mobile device data, and satellite imaging data. The development of AI systems in industries like agriculture and healthcare is now possible thanks to these data sources.

Future disease outbreaks, famine, hunger, and even armed conflicts should all be better predicted thanks to the continual research and improvement of present AI models. Let me give you an illustration of the value of open-source data. Using publicly available data, observers from around the world created a clear picture of Russia assembling forces on Ukraine's borders in late 2021 in preparation for an invasion. Since satellite photographs and first-person accounts from the site painted a clear picture of the situation for the world, it was challenging for anyone to deny reality on the ground.

Open-source data can be a force for good by empowering civil society, for example, to lift the veil of secrecy that surrounds authoritarian regimes and to do better advocacy, but bad actors can also use public data for their own ends. Massive volumes of data are readily available nowadays, and while this has its advantages, it also exposes society to new vulnerabilities. We’ve written about AI’s impact on fairness and inclusion here and here.

In all these, connectivity does matter...

Our World in Data reports that although developed economies claim internet connectivity rates that nearly cover their whole populations, less than 5% of people are connected in the world's poorest economies.

Costs might change almost instantly if satellite-based internet access becomes a reality. A startup called Starlink intends to deploy thousands of tiny satellites into low-Earth orbit in order to blanket a sizable chunk of the planet with radio waves and provide people in distant areas access to high-speed internet.

Why should we care? Since the vast potential of connectivity is now in the hands of regular people, it has the potential to completely change lower-income economies. With more than a third of the world still not connected, this satellite constellation can aid in closing the digital divide that is lagging behind remote and rural areas.

Also, low-earth-orbit internet has the potential to shift the balance of power away from authoritarian regimes in addition to bringing connection to places with inadequate infrastructure. For instance, once nearby cell towers went dark, Starlink allowed Ukrainian soldiers access to its network. After connecting to Starlink, thousands of people were able to restore contact with the outside world, which was essential for anyone caught up in a war.

So, what does the future hold?

The talent that development firms recruit and retain, as well as the flexibility they allow their organizational structure, will determine many things. To encourage a vibrant and creative workplace culture, development organizations should use modern management strategies.

When agility is lacking, obsolescence is unavoidable. We must prepare for the rapid changes that lie ahead and consider how to provide our coworkers with the adaptability they require to handle fresh problems as they emerge. In a future of open-source data, AI, and constant connectivity, rigid organizations based on twentieth-century realities have no place in this new world.


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Communication Manager of the RECONOMY Program
Programme Manager, East Europe, South Caucuses & Western Balkans; Senior Advisor, Sustainable & Inclusive Economies