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The Danger of Digitalizing Aid

The humanitarian aid sector faces growing pressure to innovate and adopt digital technologies, reflecting the urgent need to make such assistance more effective. But the world’s most vulnerable communities must not be forced to make themselves visible to governments that may not have their best interests at heart.

BRIGHTON – Digital systems are critical to development and humanitarian activities, but they can expose some of the world’s most vulnerable communities to unforeseen risks. Recent examples from Afghanistan highlight these dangers.

In September, it was reported that the UK Ministry of Defence had been involved in two separate data breaches, potentially compromising the safety of participants in the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy program, which is intended to protect people who had worked for British forces. These breaches followed revelations that the Taliban now control systems for digital identification that were built using international aid. As a former official with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) put it, “The Taliban have been given the keys to the server room.” Moreover, information in the Tazkira, the digital identity cards used in Afghanistan, reportedly can be used to target ethnic groups.

Organizations and governments tasked with providing cash assistance during humanitarian crises recognize the need for legislation to strengthen data protection, but finding staff with both data protection expertise and knowledge of social protection systems is challenging and expensive. As data-driven systems are introduced into aid work, there is the potential for a significant power imbalance between technology providers, governments, and vulnerable populations. And the commercial incentives that drive the involvement of private-sector companies in this domain often are at odds with humanitarian principles – including that the collection and sharing of personal data should not put people at risk.

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