A call to philanthropy: let’s help build societies that are tech-enabled, not tech-led


Benjamin Bellegy


In the Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of The Typographic Man, we learn that the printing press revolutionised the world by making possible the rise of individualism, Protestantism and modern capitalism. The author, Marshall McLuhan, concludes that ‘the medium is the message’; technologies are not simple tools that we shape, but powerful forces that shape human societies and consciousness.

If a technology as basic as the printing press changed the world in such a fundamental way, what might be the impact of new technological disruptions on the present and future?

As philanthropy and civil society players, we are all trying to understand how we can improve our society and planet, and we should care greatly about technological developments that are affecting our ability to make positive changes. Technology is revolutionising economies, human relationships, politics, cultures, agricultures, and absolutely every single aspect of life. Yet, we’ve seen little engagement by our field in trying to understand the current and future impacts of this revolution, on our own areas of work, and on broader society. We have also been slow at looking for ways to leverage the power of new technology to accelerate change at scale.

Like a deer caught in the headlights, we seem stunned by the pace and dimension of the change. In the best case, trying to push back here and there on what appears as negative consequences on the one hand, or trying to take advantage of a few specific innovations that could advance our work, on the other. Yet proper systemic and systematic reflections and actions are still to be adopted by the majority of philanthropic actors.

This apparent paralysis is perfectly mirrored by our own lack of technological infrastructure. Only a tiny portion of philanthropic organisations and donors have strongly equipped themselves with technology to improve their operations, security and privacy. And only a few have invested to support their partners and grantees having the infrastructure – including simple things such as access to the internet – and the knowledge they need to increase their impact and navigate threats. In the meantime, social movements are embracing technologies and social media, and most foundations are still trying to understand how to support them and harness this energy into lasting change.

It is time philanthropic actors of all types and focuses really engage. New tech issues can and should become a central tenet of all changemakers’ approaches. They should invest to understand how technology will disrupt their area of work and offer opportunities for impact; they should invest in their own infrastructure and that of their partners; and maybe even more importantly, they should invest to help citizens have a voice in the way digital societies are being shaped locally and globally.

In a recent interview with Badr Jafar and the new Cambridge Centre for Strategic Philanthropy, Indian philanthropist Nandan Nilekani highlights how technology is revolutionising our work by allowing scaling and acceleration. He stresses how Artificial Intelligence will for instance make education programmes more effective by understanding how we learn, or how health could be dramatically improved thanks to early diagnosis. All of this can be incubated and boosted through philanthropic funding. This holds lots of promises, especially as the majority of new wealth, including Mr Nilekani’s, comes from the tech industry and its holders should be naturally inclined to leveraging tech for the common good.

It is certainly our responsibility to pursue these promises and turn them into reality. But before we can focus solely on tech4good, philanthropy must make sure we put human rights at the centre of tech developments and enable citizens to be involved in developing the digital societies and economies they want.

Optimism and a willingness to focus on solutions and framing the role of philanthropy in the digital age as simply an accelerator of tech4good, is short-sighted given that aspects of the digital revolution are leading to a variety of serious social and existential threats, many of them potentially irreversible.

This includes the massive destruction of jobs at a time when we need to create 3 billion jobs by 2050, cultural homogenisation, the rise of mental health issues, the polarisation of views, the spread of misinformation, unprecedented possibilities for population control and surveillance, the acceleration of economic inequalities between and within countries, and increasing dependency on a handful of companies able to control almost everything, from what we think to what we eat.

Even if one somehow manages to ignore the above issues, concerns about governance remain. The questions we need to ask are: are we allowing citizens to be equipped and empowered to help design the type of digital societies they want and the policies that can bring them to life? What are the democratic checks and balances, locally and globally, on such massive civilisational issues? What is often seen as an irresistible movement, a natural evolution – especially now that Covid-19 has made tech an even more central part of our lives and economies – is not. The way we design the present and future of our society and economy is rooted in a specific vision and narrative, and that vision must be debated.

There lies a critical and overlooked role for philanthropy: equipping social change actors with the tools, infrastructure and knowledge they need to do their work and to raise their voices to shape, with governments and the private sector, healthy digital societies that benefit the majority and help accomplish the SDGs while also preserving human rights.

Saying this is not being a Luddite, it is just making sure, as actors concerned with human welfare, that we are building democratic and human digital societies. In the same interview as Nandan Nilekani, his spouse, writer and philanthropist Rohini Nilekani, puts it in a great way: ‘Civil society actors need to enter, participate in and democratise the digital age so that we are tech-enabled and not tech-led’.

Philanthropic actors have a unique role to play in making this possible. They have the independence, foresight, capacity and ability to empower others. They also have access to precious flexible financial resources with $1.5 trillion in assets and $150 billion distributed yearly that they are free to manage as they wish.

Probably the best way to engage the broader philanthropic sector, beyond a few effective altruists and tech specialists, is to stop considering tech as a technical issue, or as a sub-component of human rights, but to incorporate it as a cross-cutting element that is key to any work for the common good.

Maybe we should reverse our thinking on how to make philanthropy strategic. Maybe we should put cross-cutting issues, such as tech, relationships and power, or a strong enabling environment, at the centre and consider what are currently our core issues as peripheral. If we really want to create systemic change, we may need to reverse this order. If what we are trying to achieve is a healthy, sustainable, happiness-based society, we need a holistic approach and we can no longer consider change as a series of issues to be solved with a bit of cement between them. We may now need to focus on the enablers such as tech, on the connectors, and on the intersectionality that will bring about systemic change. Maybe it is time for philanthropy to focus on the medium, because the medium is the message.

Benjamin Bellegy is the Executive Director at WINGS.

WINGS is hosting an event on Philanthropy and the Digital Revolution on February 18 where these issues will be discussed and debated. You can find more information about the event here.

Comments (3)

Janet Marx

Thank you Benjamin, food for thought!

Amy Taylor

Well said! Thank you, Benjamin. Looking forward to hearing more on how to prepare for the digital revolution at the WINGS Forum event on 18th Feb!

claire crescenzo

formidable bravo ben claire

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