The aid sector is at a critical juncture in the face of escalating global challenges such as food shortages, climate-driven disasters, and conflicts, writes Lacey Hunter CEO and Co-Founder of TechAid.

The need for resources and support far surpasses the available supply, demanding innovative approaches for coordination and allocation. Suppose we are to adequately address the ongoing humanitarian crises that have more than doubled in duration since 2014 (from an estimated 4 years to 9+). In that case, we must leverage every possible means of coordinating and deploying limited resources in a smart way.

Local need vs foreign generosity

When plans are drawn up and funded in foreign nations by foreign actors to deliver foreign goods, the crucial local context is often lost with no two-way communication system to first solicit feedback from the community on what is needed and where and no mechanism to measure outcomes and results, these results are often ineffective. 

Regarding the provision of humanitarian aid, Economics 101 states that a market clearing price is where supply and demand meet. Without market research or soliciting the feedback of the individuals and groups on the receiving end, enterprises would never usually embark on launching a product or service in a new geography. Where this one-sided export of goods, services, and support becomes demonstrably problematic is when the incentive to match supply to demand (e.g., pay the full price of shutting down operations, pivoting business models, disposing of unwanted/unsellable inventory) is subsidised in the name of “generosity.” Unfortunately, this is often the case when it comes to humanitarian aid.

The tax incentives offered for in-kind donations equate to a means of financially rewarding the poor business planning and execution that resulted in the excess or “about to expire” goods in the first place. Can we label giving as ‘humanitarian aid’ if it serves the purpose of virtue signalling more than meeting genuine needs? 

The critical need for AI and automation 

The time for digital transformation across the aid industry is now. AI-enabled tools can securely categorise, sort, and match needs with available supplies. Leveraging these technologies can enhance coordination between the public and private sectors, enabling optimal resource deployment. Using AI, we can shift from top-down decision-making to data-driven approaches prioritising critical needs and community desires.

The acceleration of mobile phone penetration globally, combined with technologies like Starlink enabling internet connectivity in previously underserved or outright unserved regions, means that the ability to solicit and respond to feedback from individuals and communities at scale is a reality – right now, today. 

This is not some far-off wish but rather an opportunity to seize the moment to serve the global community in a dignified and specific way. Instead of making ‘top down’ decisions and estimates from faraway locations, we can leverage existing technology to coordinate and allocate scarce resources optimally when disaster strikes. 

Striking a balance

While embracing technological advancements, respecting local knowledge and perspectives is crucial. Local communities possess firsthand insights into their needs; incorporating their feedback is essential for effective aid. Initiatives that combine a “bottoms-up” approach, aggregating specific demands, and a “top-down” approach, aligning available supply with demand, can provide a comprehensive solution. In this way, AI can serve as a valuable tool, helping to bridge gaps and ensure efficient resource allocation.

Utilising technology to empower local talent working on longer-term solutions within the community is also essential. What we know from watching the private sector establish and attract talent to incubators and accelerators is this: the cycle of innovation and successful products and services built in response to lived experience (see FarmerLine as a perfect example of this) attracts more attention, more investment, more resources, and more support, driving more innovation yet, jobs creation and independence for the business builders. In addition, emerging entrepreneurs and business builders provide real-world, human examples of beating the odds and creating a viable business. 

As someone who has sought to break the glass ceiling as a minority in my chosen fields (a woman in the Finance and Tech industries), I understand all too well that entrepreneurs in the tech space that have experienced some pushback in their own careers are well-positioned to incite change within outdated systems.

This begs the question of why we as a society aren’t pushing for similar, market-based solutions to address ongoing humanitarian crises and subsequent economic fallout where possible. Obviously, there are limitations to this concept – an area without a functioning government, any infrastructure, or a government hostile to any sort of free market activity is perhaps the next big problem to tackle. 

Ethical considerations and responsible design 

In the pursuit of aid effectiveness, accountability and collaboration are paramount. Needs assessment, benchmarking, and outcome measurement mechanisms should be integrated into aid operations, which is precisely what TechAid aims to solve. AI can facilitate this by providing real-time data, enabling continuous improvement, and fostering transparency. By collaborating with both local actors and the private sector, the aid sector can leverage existing expertise, resources, and technologies for more impactful outcomes.

As we embrace AI and automation, we must remain mindful of ethical considerations and responsible design principles. A responsible approach ensures that aid initiatives are not driven by subsidised dumping or poor business planning but are rooted in a genuine understanding of local needs. It requires leveraging technology to empower communities rather than reinforcing power imbalances. Responsible design should prioritise human dignity and strive to create sustainable, long-term solutions.

The aid sector stands to benefit significantly from the integration of AI and automation. We can enhance coordination, resource allocation, and outcome measurement by harnessing these technologies. However, it is essential to maintain a balance, valuing local knowledge and prioritising community needs. A thoughtful and responsible approach, rooted in collaboration and accountability, can pave the way for a future where technology and human-centred aid efforts work hand in hand to address global challenges effectively.

About Lacey Hunter

Lacey Hunter is the CEO and Co-Founder of TechAid, a venture envisioned at the World Economic Forum (2022) that enables a data-driven approach to humanitarian aid and infrastructure to facilitate economic resilience. She believes fundamental human rights should not be dictated by the arbitrary nature of one’s birthplace or gender. Lacey is fascinated with the incredible potential of blockchain and AI to improve outcomes and transparency, reduce inefficiency and waste, and to better serve the needs of the global population.