“Technology is changing our industry so quickly, we can’t afford not to embrace it.”
Variations of statements like this are common in most industries, including NGOs, civil society, government. At times it feels like a bit of a scramble. And definitely there is FOMO on the latest shiny toys and trends.
While I am an advocate for using technology and believe it can bring benefits. I am also aware many NGOs work with some of the world’s most vulnerable people. It would be relatively easy to ‘experiment’ with this people group in the name of innovating or impact.
And yet we also need to improve. And sometimes to improve, we need to try new methods, new approaches. However, we do not want to make those already vulnerable, more vulnerable. So it becomes a balancing act we need to figure out.
One approach would be to remember technology is not neutral, it comes with bias and worldviews inbuilt. We need to be aware of ‘ethics washing.’ Therefore, just because the technology exists doesn’t mean we have to use it.
Another approach would be to learn from other industries; healthcare for instance. Healthcare is constantly learning and generally improving. One of the ways it does this is through changing, innovating, trying new approaches, and so on. In many countries, this learning is done under quite strict regulation and processes. Often, the processes include review boards of some sort. While the review boards and learning process is not perfect, there is lots we can learn. NGOs should establish ethics review committees, not just in the M&E departments, but in the operations departments.
The challenge of improving the lives of those vulnerable within our societies is too important NOT to be continually learning. However, vulnerable people are very much people and deserve to be treated as such. We need a people centric approach to using technology, not a technology centric approach to people.