Technology and inequality

Claire Spoors Gender & Development Journal, ICT4D, Inequality, Participation and Leadership

We are at a crossroads on the digital highway. Advocacy Adviser, Claire Spoors highlights some key themes for the international development sector to consider when thinking about the intersection of technology and inequality.

Recent World Bank estimates reveal that reducing inequality is a more effective way to eradicate poverty than increasing a country’s annual growth rate. Oxfam’s Fighting inequality to beat poverty shares key lessons on how to do this that have emerged from our work with partners around the world. We need a sector-wide response to the inequality crisis. One that adopts a development agenda based on feminist principles and a human economy, if we’re going to meet the global development goals.

How can we harness technology to improve most people’s lives rather than simply increase the bank balances and power of a few?

The paper also raises several questions that the international development sector needs to grapple with if we are to achieve the vision set out by the SDGs. A key question is: how can we harness technology to improve most people’s lives rather than simply increase the bank balances and power of a few?

This was the subject of a roundtable Oxfam hosted with the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Inclusive Growth. We heard from the technology industry, DFID, thinktanks, academia and NGOs. The discussion highlighted the need for proactive and joined-up efforts across government, the private sector and civil society. Here are some key reflections:

Inclusiveness and access to technology

Technology itself is not inherently good, bad or neutral. Those creating technology do not mirror the society they serve, and this can affect its impact in the real world. In the UK, 17% of the digital sector workforce are women and even less are BAME. Research shows mounting evidence of the biases built into algorithms, and suggests ways to tackle this.

We also see a disparity of digital connectivity and proficiency. In the UK, there are 11.3 million people that are unable to use technology safely – for example to protect themselves from scams, or send an email. If these problems still affect more than 10% of people in the UK – decades after the technology revolution here began – how will it play out globally?

The African Union’s ambition is for all people to be online in Africa by 2030, but it matters how this is done. For instance, a digital hot spot set up recently in Mozambique was accessed 4-5 times more by men than women. Women’s care duties, and gender norms disapproving of women accessing technology had not been fully considered in its design, and so it reinforced gender imbalances.

The impact of automation on number, distribution and quality of jobs

The future is unclear. Will automation ultimately displace or enhance jobs? Displacement is more likely to affect women, agricultural workers and textile workers – reversing the reductions we have seen in poverty. Will returns accrue to capital or labour, increasing or decreasing income polarisation and overall economic inequality?

However, there is some optimism. For instance, that the automation of agricultural work may not reduce job opportunities, but instead increase yields. We need to focus on making work more productive while hiving off repetitive, dirty jobs to automation, so more people can access safe, well-paid and dignified work. However, the disruption of full-scale automation is coming, so the need for a social dialogue about making that transition just is more urgent than ever.

Governance of the technology sector

Tax dodging by large technology firms is a major and well-documented problem. It is particularly galling when you consider that many technology innovations have been government-led, and paid for by taxpayers – such as the creation of the LED screen. Oxfam has long advocated for effective and progressive taxation to tackle economic inequality.

Protection also needs to be prioritised. Where digital access is increased, existing community grievances and offline violence can often be exacerbated. Social media can be misused to have a corrosive effect on civil society, and even affect election outcomes. Again, we must prioritise teaching people how to be savvy and responsible digital citizens.

So, where next?

In order to ensure technology is a force for equality, we need:

  • Indicators for meaningful use such as increasing women’s economic empowerment
  • Digital products and systems to be made with the most marginalised in mind
  • Investment in education and skills to ensure everyone can participate in the digital economy
  • Legal protections to ensure inclusivity, such as equal access to technology and broader representation across the tech industry

We are only just beginning to understand the level of co-operation and policy changes needed for more inclusive digital economies and societies, to help us make meaningful use of technology, and that which allows for decent and dignified livelihoods.

The UN High Level Panel on Digital Cooperation, which Oxfam participated in, uncovered a raft of questions about how human rights accords and standards should apply to new emerging digital realities. And DFID’s Leaving No One Behind in a Digital World strategy considers how already disadvantaged people are less able to reap digital dividends.

Whilst there is concern, there is also hope. Technology provides windows of opportunity for people to access new and varied livelihoods, shape cultural norms and engage in democracy. Our collective aim as a sector should be to ensure the most marginalised are equipped with the skills, access and tools to open them.


Claire Spoors

Claire Spoors is Advocacy Adviser – UK Inequality at Oxfam GB