Key takeaways

  • Foreign aid is a US$132 billion industry, but government spending is flatlining, and the private sector is filling the void, bringing with it bolder and riskier tech-led solutions.
  • As a result, many technologies that are deployed in conflict and disaster zones front-run their broader societal integration.
  • Technology such as AI, blockchain and chatbots is helping solve some of the world’s most critical challenges.

Back in 2002, the world marvelled at tech gadgets such as Apple’s second generation iPod, with an amazing 20Gb of music in your pocket, or Sanyo’s SCP-5300 mobile phone, the first of its kind with an inbuilt camera.

It seems like ancient history now, but way back then, on a distant border between Pakistan with Afghanistan, at the height of the ‘war on terror’, officials were already well advanced in the use of biometric technology as they managed the mass migration of refugees crossing borders.

A handful of years later, in 2007, while Facebook was beginning to gain popularity in the developed world, M-Pesa had already launched in Kenya, revolutionising mobile phone-based money transfer in developing countries where the majority of the population does not use a bank.

It may seem counterintuitive, but the developing world has typically been more advanced with adopting emerging technology – and bold with accepting associated risks. So the proverb goes: necessity is the mother of all invention.

Foreign aid is now a US$132 billion dollar industry. But funding from governments is flatlining, and increasingly, the money is coming from the private sector. What this means is we can expect to see riskier, bolder and more innovative solutions to some of today’s global development challenges.

Huge challenges
lie ahead

Last month I travelled to the World Bank headquarters in Washington, DC to speak at its annual youth summit. The theme of the year was, rightfully, tech and innovation for impact. The sole goal of the World Bank is to end extreme poverty by 2030.

2017 was a year where much of that happened, through governments, bilaterals, academia and corporations. For example, the World Health Organisation unveiled a new vaccine cheap and effective enough to end cholera, one of humanity’s greatest killers1. The Zika virus all but disappeared2. Clean water and sanitation helped reduce children mortality by a third in just over a decade3.

The benefits of spending on science, technology and innovation – even the smallest investments – are tangible and impactful. However, huge developmental challenges lie ahead.

Today, there are more people in the world with access to a mobile phone than a basic toilet4. Just three African countries publish sufficient budget information for citizens to know what their governments are spending money on5.  A child born to a mother who can read is 50% more likely to survive past the age of 56. There are 59 million children who don’t go to school7.

This is where technology can help solve these problems. Let’s explore a few of them.

for identity management

Many of us are familiar with biometric technology: our smartphones require a fingerprint to unlock it, and airport customs use facial recognition and retina scanning to confirm identities. While its use is associated with making our lives faster and safer, it is also being used to solve complex challenges in the developing world.

We take our birth certificates for granted, but a staggering 2.4 billion people in the world have no official government documentation. Increasingly, organisations are turning to iris scanning, digital fingerprints and other forms of biometrics to create accurate and secure documentation for their citizens.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, biometrics have been used in its last three elections for transparent and fairer democratic processes. Meanwhile, in Pakistan, iris recognition technology is helping helping the UNHCR detect Afghan refugees that have already ‘enrolled’ in their database and are seeking assistance for a second time.

Drones delivering
aid in crises

The United Nations’ The World Food Programme (WFP) is exploring the use of AI to analyse the data gathered from satellites and drones to assess the impact of a disaster in real time, inform how organisations respond, and deliver impactful and efficient aid.

The potential for AI-powered vehicles and drones to help deliver assistance to areas that are difficult to reach or too dangerous to enter will have some of the greatest impacts in disaster crises and zones in both the developed and the developing world. The use of more accurate data and efficiency in responses also means corporations and governments have less risk to absorb as well as a greater capital investment in foreign aid during crisis.

Chatbots for
crisis communication

We regularly come across chatbots as customers, but in situations of protracted crisis, such as the conflicts in Syria and Afghanistan, they are being used to help organisations understand the unique needs and circumstances of people in order to render the right types of assistance.

AI-powered chatbots allow organisations to communicate directly with people in their local language. For example, the WFP chats through its AI-based survey chatbot with crisis-affected people in 20 different languages. It allows communication with more people, at a fraction of the cost of translation services, in almost real time, to deliver better, targeted assistance to those most in need.

Blockchain for
transparency and trust

Despite being more open to risk than governments, corporations still have the same questions of transparency and trust when it comes to increased investment in foreign aid and international development. Is the capital actually ending up where it is intended, and is it delivering impact in a measurable, tangible way?

Blockchain is changing the issues of transparency for many donors based on its fundamental characteristic that it does not allow records to be modified. It creates a permanent audit trail, allowing for increased data transparency and integrity, and serves as a permanent source of record for long term storage, for example birth and health records.

Blockchain technology can also be used to track the delivery and use of international aid in the form of currency, supplies, or services. We can expect less corruption, more transparency, and an increased appetite for international investment.

Ready to take
a risk

These are just a few examples, but technology is enhancing aid in unexpected ways. As we move closer to 2030 and the deadline committed to achieve the 17 sustainable development goals – progress must accelerate. In the last month, the Australian government issued a senate inquiry into how this can be done. How can we solve poverty, or get more girls in schools, or increase access to drinking water, all by 2030?

These ambitious, but not insurmountable goals are coming at the same time as bilateral funding flatlines. Now, more than ever, the development sector is ready to take on more risk to have greater impact, and technological innovation will be our strongest ally in getting there.

Imagine what technology being implemented now might we see make their way into the developed world by then?


Gulandam Khan

Gulandam Khan is a manager in PwC Australia’s Experience and Insights Consulting practice specialising in strategy and innovation.

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