Refugees, Digital Technology and the Promise of Mutual Aid

Six key insights from aidx paper 1

Tarig Hilal & Gerard McHugh

People helping people, it is a simple and intuitive proposition, one that will likely have the familiar ring of a campaign slogan or an organisational mission. It is an ideal for which many organisations working with refugees aspire to but frequently fall short of. Increasingly it does not have to be so.

We live in the midst of a technological revolution that is transforming human relations, connecting and empowering people on a scale and in ways unimaginable only a decade ago, offering new opportunities to solve age old problems.

Whilst virtually every field of endeavour is being disrupted by this transformation, some of the most exciting changes are happening in the digital realm where new and emergent technologies have combined with increased digital connectivity to open up whole new worlds of possibility. Financial and communication technologies, digital IDs, mobile money, artificial intelligence and blockchain are not only transformative in and of themselves but are creating an infrastructure and ecosystem for further innovation.

Yet where technology has positively impacted refugees’ lives it has often been incidental, a by-product of broader technological changes rather than the result of targeted endeavour. Applications like WhatsApp, Facebook and Google Maps have come to play a central role in the lives of many refugees. But none of these technologies were designed with refugees in mind and whilst they solve critical problems (like communicating with family and orientation) there is so much more that could be done.

The intentional development of technology products to support refugee communities means first understanding what problems refugees face and then working closely with them to co-design solutions. This is not only an exciting and powerful way to help people disadvantaged by circumstance, but has the potential to offer up innovations that could benefit people more widely.

Refugee communities are already innovating. Figuring out how to get money to family in a refugee camp when your mobile account has been suspended, making a living when working is restricted, or making ends meet when the cost of living simply out strips the amount of money coming in requires ingenuity.

Guided by the tools and frameworks of human-centered design, aidx has run a research program in Turkey, Sudan and Kenya amongst Syrian, South Sudanese and Somali refugees respectively. Our goal was to better understand the challenges that refugees face in their day to day lives and gain insight into the social innovations that help them to overcome these challenges. Below are six key insights

Key Insights

1.Refugees are ordinary people facing extraordinary circumstances.

Whilst their circumstances are extraordinary many of the concerns of refugees are ones that would be familiar to people everywhere, finding a job, paying the rent, dealing with health bills and accessing education.

2. The majority of assistance that refugees receive comes from within their social networks and communities.

Networks of self help or, as we refer to them, mutual aid are a fundamental part of how refugees survive day-to-day. They employ sophisticated social systems that range from the formal to the informal, from two-party agreements to large and highly coordinated group action. The sharing, giving, and pooling that these networks facilitate are nearly ubiquitous among the refugees we interviewed.

3. Financial pooling is one of the most powerful examples of mutual aid.

This practice, ranging from the highly structured to the informal, is widespread amongst those we interviewed and served as a source of gifts, loans and savings.

4. Despite its many strengths mutual aid also presents a number of challenges.

Participating in mutual aid can be very time consuming. Misaligned expectations and breaches in trust are a significant cause of distress and people with poor social networks struggle to access its benefits. Financial pooling is made more difficult by its heavy reliance upon cash.

5. Digital technologies are failing to support systems of mutual aid.

Despite the prevalence of mutual aid among vulnerable populations very little effort has been directed toward building digital technologies that strengthen and support these networks.

6. There is an opportunity to develop new solutions.

There is a unique opportunity to combine the best practices in human-centered design with informed technology choices to build new products that map over the social technologies of mutual aid in ways that empower individuals and strengthen communities.

To learn more download aidx paper 1

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