How Can Philanthropy and Technology Co-evolve for Development?

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A Review of the “Scenarios for the Future of Technology and International Development” Report

by Keisha Taylor. This was originally posted on the TechSoup Global Blog.

Philanthropists, nonprofits, and the development sector as a whole cannot underestimate the role they have to play in understanding and using technology for development. But they must also be informed about the implications of its use. This is one of the key messages I garnered from the lengthy but interesting and provocative Scenarios for the Future of Technology and International Development report, recently published by the Rockefeller Foundation and the Global Business Network. Engaging the imagination, it puts forward four global scenarios, with an accompanying fictional case study, that describe how philanthropy and technology may co-evolve for development. I’ve summarized the report and its main points for you as an easy introduction to this important topic. According to Peter Schwartz, Co-founder and Chairman of the Global Business Network “by focusing its patience, capital, and attention on the links between technology and international development, philanthropy will change not just lives but the very context in which the field of philanthropy operates.” While the report does not claim to predict the future, it provides a lot of room for thought to all working in the development sector and for technologists eager to use technology for social good. It not only illustrates how they could influence future developments but how they could respond to a future made even more unpredictable by technology. It examines how philanthropy and technology are now interlinked for development initiatives.

Four Scenarios: Do You Want To Live in Any Of These Worlds?

LOCK STEP: “A world of tighter top-down government control and more authoritarian leadership, with limited innovation and growing citizen pushback.”

In this world, philanthropic organisations need greater diplomatic skills to operate effectively because top-down governments will increasingly moderate the environment in which the philanthropists work. This will be sparked by pandemics. Working in the human rights arena will also become more difficult. It may inevitably limit where philanthropists decide to work and cause mergers among philanthropic institutes to increase. Technology innovation is also driven by government and national security concerns, and surveillance technology is increasingly used to monitor citizens, leading to the “fracture” of the World Wide Web as we know it and to decreased entrepreneurship. This, however, leads to citizens’ uprising.

CLEVER TOGETHER: “A world in which highly coordinated and successful strategies emerge for addressing both urgent and entrenched worldwide issues”.

This scenario unfolds an increase in international collaborations and a dwindling of the power of nation states. Transparency and accountability increases as data becomes more available and as the use of technology becomes more important to the work of philanthropists. Technology innovations in energy and water also take prominence. “In 2022, a consortium of nations, NGOs, and companies established the Global Technology Assessment Office, providing easily accessible, real-time information about the costs and benefits of various technology applications to developing and developed countries alike. All of these efforts translated into real progress on real problems, opening up new opportunities to address the needs of the bottom billion — and enabling developing countries to become engines of growth in their own right” is one fictional scene.Collaboration enables governments and the development sector to get and better understand data. This vastly improves the management and allocation of financial and environmental resources and facilitate technology-enabled breakthroughs on climate change and disease outbreaks. Systems thinking and knowledge management become critical skills for philanthropists. And the flow of talent between the business and nonprofit sector blurs the lines between the two types of organisations. Green technology spurs mobile payments development in Africa. Philanthropists also start working in a more virtual way as access to technology increases and cost of technology decreases around the world.

HACK ATTACK: “An economically unstable and shock-prone world in which governments weaken, criminals thrive, and dangerous innovations emerge.”

Coined the doom decade (2010-2020), (so we are actually living in it ... if it were to happen, of course) this scenario points to how financial and overall resource scarcity, as well as trade disputes, result in a breaking of partnerships, sparking wars and conflicts, which are played out through the use of technology. Confidence in the use of technology decreases as hacking increases and criminals become more versed in the use of counterfeits. This world, which is filled with IP address thefts, scamming, and viruses affects technology innovation. As a result, “Guerrilla philanthropy,” which focuses on promoting stability and providing basic needs, develops. It tries to identify not only hackers but those technologists who promote positive social change in a very challenging environment. Philanthropist organisations come together using a “fortress model” to counter fraud and lack of trust and to help protect their reputation. They do more work locally than globally. “Dark webs” develop that disallow government monitoring. As insecurity increases, technology tools for “aggression and protection” are in high demand and so are those that allow for hedonistic escape from real life’s stresses.

SMART SCRAMBLE: “An economically depressed world in which individuals and communities develop localized, makeshift solutions to a growing set of problems.”

Within such a scenario, the gap between rural and urban areas increases because non-urban areas have difficulty gaining access to ICT due to a lack of investment in ICT infrastructure. Philanthropic organisations fund grassroots initiatives focusing on the individual followed by the institutional rather than the reverse. Without global coordination, philanthropic organisations become more decentralised so they can quickly identify and respond with local solutions. “Office space is rented by the day or week, not the month or year, because more people are in the field — testing, evaluating, and reporting on myriad pilot projects.” As technology development resources diminish and economic and political instability increases in the developed world, highly skilled migrants return home, spreading knowledge to their native countries and “do-it-yourself innovation” develops. On the other hand, foreign direct investment is scarce because of this. And other problems in the technology innovation ecosystem, such as unreliable Internet and difficulty in accessing capital and markets, persist.

No Future World Without Technology and Collaboration

Clearly a common trait in all of these scenarios is the importance of technology for future philanthropy and the fact that data generated via technology will prove useful for such scenario planning as well as future philanthropic efforts. Collaboration will continue to be a key ingredient for the realisation of poverty reduction, human rights, sustainable development, and political inclusion. The report concludes by saying that “Developing a deeper understanding of the ways in which technology can impact development will better prepare everyone for the future and help all of us drive it in new and positive directions.” This statement rang true as I read each of these scenarios.

A Grain of Salt

However, the report is not without its sceptics. It also does not seem to distinguish between philanthropy from the developed world and the developing world. Therefore, it would be useful to paint a picture that shows what a world that includes philanthropists from emerging and developing countries would look like. The report does say that one “predetermined element” is the “near geopolitical certainty that with the rise of China, India, and other nations, a multi-polar global system is emerging.” However, as we use technology to get even more data to help inform such scenarios, we will increasingly be able to narrow them down to those which are most likely. Or maybe not? For how technology will develop may yet remain unpredictable and, as the report says, “critical uncertainties” will persist. While these scenarios may not play out exactly as described, technology and related data will help us to design more informed scenarios. However, even the strongest advocates of open data must acknowledge that data can also be manipulated, lack inclusivity, and be used to violate privacy and other human rights.

My Take on Scenarios of the Future

I would venture that not only large philanthropists, but civil society organisations, including the smallest, and citizens around the world will indeed have to “co-evolve” with technology to maximise their impact. They must not only adapt to developments in technology but influence the way technology develops to ensure it continues to be used for good. This will help us to create a scenario where the most vulnerable and marginalised receive assistance, fundamental rights are protected, and those that govern can be held to account. A scenario each of us should want to live in.