On the patient capital needed from philanthropy in tech.

By Nanjira Sambuli. 

If we were previously slow-marching towards the age of digitalisation, the Covid-19 pandemic has surely, if unevenly, gotten us there. For some, the reliance on technologies for communication, work and everything in between may have been a smooth adjustment; for many others, it has been a steep adapting curve. Others still have been left behind— the ‘price of admission’ unaffordable to them. This digital divide largely mirrors analogue antecedents, that is, the socio-cultural, economic and even political determinants of who gains access to opportunities and public goods. These dynamics are to be found in developing and developed countries alike. 

Digital technologies are usually considered disruptive in a manner to imply a net positive effect. The possibilities and potential they present are gaining popularity, influencing even established institutions’ ways of working, doing and organising. Across sectors, discourse is rampant on the role of digital technologies in attaining lofty missions. The pitfalls, however, are still too often an afterthought, barely figuring in the planning and subsequent investments in digitalisation. Big Tech, for instance, is venturing into the world of agriculture, aiming to integrate big data tools to food production and improve ‘farm-to-table’ offerings. This, however, will disproportionately and adversely affect smallholder farmers’ agricultural practises that supply most of our food, and whose agro-ecological practises — to maintain food diversity and ecosystem health — align with the eco-resilience we desperately need. 

Technological determinism, while influenced by success stories, is an insufficient and even problematic lens through which to approach our societies’ challenges. It often leads to placing particular technologies du jour—Artificial Intelligence (AI) for example—on pedestals; presently, we are increasingly inundated with the proselytising of AI and other emerging technologies as the long-awaited solutions to many a complexity in our world today. With regards to the pandemic, AI has been a useful catalyst in some instances, such as parsing datasets, however, the technologies that make up AI are not the ‘holy grail’ to ending this pandemic; it cannot, for instance, foster the trust needed across societies to adhere to measures and believe the science, nor bypass the emerging politics of vaccine distribution. 

Governments, private sector and not-for-profit actors are all seduced by this technological hype, with the real issues to be tackled—be they political, socioeconomic or developmental— reducible to innovation ‘hacks’. When one particular technological approach doesn’t work, a new, shinier one is always on the horizon, promising to finally offer a fix. In education, for instance, we have seen the feverish claims shift from providing laptops to schools, to introducing surveillance systems such as cameras in classrooms to monitor students’ performance— all the while, doubling down on the idea that it is technology that will ‘hack’ the complex challenges the sector faces. This vicious cycle undermines the greater goals of required systemic changes, of reform and building differently, to ensure the equitable futures many of us are working towards. It is particularly concerning to note this trend in sectors such as philanthropy that should otherwise offer ‘patient capital’.

If all sectors adopt a move-fast-and-tinker approach to digital transition, where then do we cultivate resilience? This is usually offered as the role of civil society in this ‘fourth industrial revolution’. Its organisations have long been a bellwether for the risks and harms that this digital fervour imposes. However, civil society is woefully under-resourced and even undermined in an ecosystem that prioritises digital innovation and quantifiable metrics, whether or not they are appropriate in varied contexts. The world is simply too complicated to fit such a narrow mould; it might work, at best, for a tiny subset of issues. Nonetheless, it is dangerously myopic to apply a singular approach — in this case, technology solutionism— to address the compounding inequalities and injustices faced by billions of people across the world today, that we must not further exacerbate.

I therefore propose a more modest role for philanthropy in the digital disruptions and transitions we are navigating. One of listening — widely, carefully and humbly— to those who are living through the day to day translations of this digitalisation era. From communities dealing with the extraction effects of the minerals and materials powering our shiny gadgets, to those for whom welfare is no longer accessible because a digital system introduced for efficiency has led to their exclusion! Such constituencies deserve to not only be heard when discussing the harms they are already facing, but also— and especially— when conceptualising and designing digital interventions; much in the same way we listen to the tech architects and dreamers who are an extremely unrepresentative sample of the end-user or ‘beneficiary’.

We urgently need patient intellectual and moral capital to accompany the financial investments that are and will be made to facilitate digital transitions. Such an approach will necessarily accommodate the fact that technologies, while exciting, are not a panacea; they are developed, designed and deployed by a few people whose worldviews, biases and assumptions end up impacting many others, often in adverse ways. This cautionary framing is necessary if we are to minimise harms and maximise benefits of digital technologies. Nor is it a false dichotomy, that in focusing on the prospective and real risks posed, we will be discrediting the possible benefits or vice versa. Another dimension to the required patience is time. Even though we feel we are running out of it, we must reorder our conceptualising and affordance of time, to connect with and co-design the sustainable solutions that can help us start closing the fissures and fractures jeopardising a better future for all. 

I wager that— while not necessarily flashy— the slower yet deliberately consultative way of investigating prospects and appropriately leveraging digital technologies in service to the communities that philanthropy serves, is how we will arrive at the missions and visions set out by the sector. 


Nanjira Sambuli

Nanjira Sambuli is a researcher, policy analyst and advocacy strategist interested in and working on understanding the unfolding impacts and gendered implications of ICT adoption and how those impact governance, media, entrepreneurship and culture.

She is a guest speaker at the upcoming WINGSForum Virtual Summit Series event on Philanthropy and the Digital Revolution taking place on 18 February 2021.

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