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Food for Thought – Tech for Good – Or Not?

By: Prof Darelle Van Greunen, Director of the Centre for Community Technologies, Nelson Mandela University, Port Elizabeth, South Africa

Tech For Good – Or Not?

“Humanitarian ethics? Isn’t that an oxymoron these days? A contradiction in terms?”

So said a somewhat cynical humanitarian worker to me a couple of weeks ago when

I told her I was participating in this event.

This morning we heard that Humanitarian aid has boomed into a multi-billion sector in

the last few years. Many people feel that a small, initially honest and voluntary pursuit

which was built on compassion and good deeds has become a bloated, self-serving

industry, or even a business.

A global humanitarian elite often lives in neo-colonial tax-free style in countries torn

apart by long wars. Humanitarian bureaucrats fly business class reading dense reports

of human suffering, rising needs and funding gaps. Anthropologists call this parallel

universe “AIDLAND”.

So, now that I have your attention and probably endeared myself to my fellow

panellists and the audience, let me explain. There is a saying in Africa that if a bud

leaves a tree without saying something, that bud is a young one. So, I will — since I

am not young, say something(s).

I want to say that there are two things we need to connect. The one is how the need

for humanitarian aid is presented and secondly; the immense opportunities that offer


By displaying despair, helplessness and hopelessness, the media is telling the truth

about Africa for example, and nothing but the truth.

However, the media is not telling us the whole truth. Because of despair, civil war,

hunger and famine, although they’re part and parcel of our African reality, they are not

the only reality. Moreover, they are the smallest reality.

Africa and other countries in need of aid have immense opportunities that never

navigate through the web of despair and helplessness that the Western media mostly

presents to its audience.

However, the effect of that presentation is, it appeals to sympathy. It appeals to pity.

It appeals to something called charity.

So as a consequence, the Western view of Africa’s economic dilemma is framed

wrongly. The wrong framing is a product of thinking that Africa is a place of despair.

What should we do with it? We should give food to the hungry. We should deliver

medicines to those who are ill. We should send peacekeeping troops to serve those

who are facing a civil war. In the process, Africa is stripped of self-initiative.

I want to say that it is essential to recognise that Africa has fundamental weaknesses.

However, equally, it has opportunities and much potential. We need to reframe the

challenge that is facing Africa, from a challenge of despair, which is called poverty

reduction, to a challenge of hope. We frame it as a challenge of hope, and that is worth

creation. The challenge facing all those who are interested in Africa is not the

challenge of reducing poverty. It should be a challenge of creating wealth.

Once we change those two things — if you say the Africans are poor and they need

poverty reduction, you have the international cartel of good intentions moving onto the

continent, with what? Medicines for the poor, food relief for those who are hungry, and

peacekeepers for those who are facing civil war. In the process, none of these things

are productive because you are treating the symptoms, not the causes of Africa’s

fundamental problems.

Sending somebody to school and giving them medicines, ladies and gentlemen, does

not create wealth for them. Wealth is a function of income, and income comes from

you finding a profitable trading opportunity or a well-paying job.

Now, once we begin to talk about wealth creation in Africa, our second challenge will

be, who are the wealth-creating agents in any society? They are entrepreneurs and

innovators. So, where should we be putting the money? We need to put money where

it can productively grow. Support private investment in Africa, both domestic and

foreign. Support research institutions, because knowledge is an integral part of wealth


Having said all of this, let me return to the topic of my talk: Tech For Good – Or Not?

It is a fact that new technologies can add considerable added value to humanitarian

action, but their uses reveal significant risks.

Let us step back and analyse the impact of new technologies on the humanitarian

sector, by examining their usefulness and misuses, but also the ethical questions they

raise, and how international solidarity organisations can benefit from the digital


Technology is ripe with ethical dilemmas. New tech usually comes with more power

and more advanced capabilities; we might be able to reshape the world in new,

innovative ways, or we might expose the human mind to conditions it has never

experienced before — new behaviours.

These open the door to ethical challenges, such as determining whether it’s right to

edit the human genome or programming self-driving cars to behave in ways aligned

with our morals.

Innovation can allow the humanitarian system to do more, for more people, at a lower

cost. Over the last decade, the daily lives of humanitarian workers have therefore

benefitted from the application of new technologies, and the concept of innovation has

become almost synonymous with them.

Information and communication technology (ICT) now enable us to better detect, and

even anticipate crises, and improve the speed and efficiency of the responses on a

larger scale.

Digital technology currently represents the most significant opportunity to transform

health systems in low and middle-income countries. In spite of the resources and

energy devoted to digital health measures in these countries, only a fraction of projects

has reached a significant scale.

The spread of mobile phones in developing countries has had a particularly significant

effect in terms of medical care and the management of food crises and epidemics.

The use of mobile phones in data collection enables better adaptation to crises and

“mobile health” interventions (mHealth) are rapidly gaining in popularity in low-income

countries, and especially in Africa, by overcoming the problems of access to

healthcare and a lack of qualified medical personnel as an example of humanitarian


Since the emergence of social media, essential debates have taken in the public

sphere and among governments, media organisations and private tech companies

over the role social media plays in our everyday life.

While numerous organisations and individuals are warning us against the risks

associated with it, others are focusing on developing the positive role these platforms

can play in bringing social change.

There may be multiple reasons why online platforms have become so popular in

humanitarian crisis settings. (I refer to the 3 F’s from the first panel: first, fast, forgotten)

First, by allowing two-way communication, social media enable people in remote or

hard-to-reach areas to communicate with the world and share their situation. In this

sense, it is faster and increases accountability. It also empowers people to amplify

their voices, to retake control of the coverage of the crises they face, instead of waiting

for the media or first responders to reach them.

Through the combined used of artificial intelligence, big data and social media,

humanitarian organisations can significantly change the way they collect information,

analyse it and take action based on it. The creation of hybrid forms of humanitarian

response, including social media, has now led to the emergence of a new group within

the field, namely, digital humanitarian workers who transform social media posts into

solutions-driven information.

As the inequalities in access to the digital world are reducing globally – as pointed out

by a 2017 report by UNESCO Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development,

it is likely that social media and technology will play an ever increasing and important

role in enhancing the humanitarian response.

If we also think that 65 per cent of primary school children will end up doing a job that

hasn’t been invented yet – and most likely in tech-related fields – becoming a digital

humanitarian may become a promising career pathway for future generations.

However, it will be essential to ensure that the digital divide is further reduced so that

the digital humanitarian response does not disenfranchise communities it seeks to

help in the first place.

Turning such initiatives into a more comprehensive social revival means creating what

practitioners call ‘thick networks’: projects that proliferate, spawning further ventures

and ideas that were not envisaged when they started. They then begin to develop a

dense, participatory culture that becomes attractive and relevant to everyone.

In other words, the focus is then on what it would take to rebuild civil society.

I envisage a two-stage process of revitalising communities. The first stage is an

‘accessible and inclusive network of co-creation.’ Also, the second, that this foundation

would evolve into the ‘development of community businesses, co-operatives and

hybrid ventures through digital platform incubation programs.’

What this two-stage process means is that building a resilient society is not just a

social good – it has direct economic impacts.

Context matters – community co-creation can be applied to regional and rural contexts,

but I’d argue we need to understand how the cultural and political context may affect


Avoiding stagnation – working with, rather than against, communities has the potential

to deliver better housing, active communities and viable community projects.

However, community co-creation also promises to revitalise urban communities.

Initiating seeding projects in an already dense residential environment can bring

communities together and create local economic growth.

I want to leave you with a few questions and then a final thought.

• Are we allowing the communities in need of humanitarian aid to propose their

solutions that they know works on the ground and not the cloud?

• What is the future of humanitarian organisations in the wake of Industry 4.0 and


• What are the ethical issues that should be considered when considering

technology and innovation?

In closing

What is clear is that the development of new technologies is forcing the humanitarian

sector to invest in reflection on the uses of technologies and make use of the ICT

expertise it has acquired. If the sector does not rethink its intervention methods to find

sustainable solutions to current humanitarian challenges, it runs the risk of being

relegated to the level of a fossil by the heralds of innovation without progress,

passively observing the spectacle of high-tech good conscience.

“Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity; it is an act of justice. Like Slavery and

Apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is human-made and can be overcome and

eradicated by the actions of human beings. Sometimes it falls on a generation to be

great. You can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom.”

– Nelson Mandela

Thank you for your attention.



Prof Darelle Van Greunen

Director of the Centre for Community Technologies

Nelson Mandela University, Port Elizabeth

South Africa