The following are excerpts from a conversation with Caroline Teti, Director of Recipient Advocacy at GiveDirectly, a non-governmental organization that delivers unconditional cash transfers to people living in extreme poverty. Technical Advisory Group member Liz Omoluabi sat down with Caroline in July to talk about responsible data use in development as part of the Data Values Project Fireside Chat series. You can watch their entire conversation here

How does your organization use data to help people and what ethical guidelines does GiveDirectly use to guide this work? 

We use a lot of data. The model that we use takes advantage of technological advancement to deliver cash to people using mobile phones, so that means we have tons and tons of data on people. And some of it is personally identifying. As an organization, we have a commitment to make sure that we deal with that data professionally and respectfully, so that the people who entrust us with that information also trust us to be able to do the right thing.

One of our values is to always put our recipients first, which means it doesn't matter how much money we bring to people; it doesn't matter how much those dollars result in reducing poverty. Above all, it's very important that the people who give us this data are at the center of everything that we do. That means they must understand what data we are receiving from them, why we are getting it, and what we are going to use it for. And we have to build trust to ensure that—as they give us their data to deliver unconditional cash to them—that even when they are not there, they can trust us with their data and that we can use it in the right way.

So how does this result in lessening inequality in the communities and countries where you work?  

When the international community wants to solve the problem of people living in poverty, we who live in spaces of decision-making make assumptions that we know what people actually need. At GiveDirectly, we have said that—in addition to what other organizations are doing—we want to put power into the hands of people living in poverty, and we want to give them the opportunity to make the decisions about their rights. That is a first step towards equity: that somebody who wants to go to the hospital can use the money to go to the hospital just as another person who needs water can buy water. Another one who needs education can pay for school. Another one who needs to build a house has the opportunity to make that decision. That way people take control of finding solutions to problems that directly affect them.

“[Putting] power into the hands of people and [giving] them the opportunity to make decisions about their rights—that is the first step towards equity.”

But can’t this type of data that you’re using also deepen inequalities?  

Being able to target and deliver funds to people using mobile data is monumental. It’s groundbreaking. It can help us reach masses of people in a short time, especially when people are in distress. But one thing that it does is it limits the connection that we get with the people to help them understand what is happening, to help them identify with the programs, and to help them be part of the decision process before participating. 

Technology also exacerbates disparities, especially among people who are living in the extreme end of poverty and disenfranchisement. There are many people who still don't have phones. We still have people who can't use phones. And we also still have people who own phones but who are living in really remote areas without phone service. That means, if we are going to rely on technology alone, there is going to be a level of exclusion not necessarily intended by the design of programs.

So what can be done to rebalance data and technology towards lessening some of these inequalities?

Number one, we need to expand the space for financial inclusion. Organizations like GiveDirectly working exclusively in providing unconditional cash need [greater ability] to reach the people who need help the most and to reduce exclusion errors. 

Number two, we need to expand the  realm of data curation through building capacity within governments to harness data that accurately captures information about people. Civil society also has a critical role to play in the process of data curation.

How can we help stakeholders in this data curation process understand and take responsibility for ensuring that participants rights are protected and safeguarded? 

It's very easy for us while working in development to take beneficiaries for granted. Because they need help, therefore, we need to get their data. And so, in whatever situation that we get their data, they should never care.  This isn’t right. We should be able to build confidence in communities that whoever is receiving this information is going to safeguard it and is also going to use it pragmatically.

We need to assess whether we have checked all the relevant boxes for getting informed consent from our recipients when receiving their data. Informed consent is important. People should understand consent, understand who is getting their consent, what data we have and what we will use that data for, how long we will keep it, who else will share access to that data, and how long whoever is getting that data is going to use it. People must understand what risks are associated with this data being out there.

What role do governments play in this and how should development agencies work with them to protect people’s data? 

Most countries already have regulatory bodies. I think that the challenge is that these regulatory bodies may not have realized or seen how technological advances are impacting the rights, equity, and dignity of the people whose data we are harnessing. What we need to do is to advocate to these regulatory bodies to put into place laws if there are none and to implement them through structures where such laws can be operationalized.

What do you think needs to change in the development data space? 

I think we need to come to the realization that there is a paradigm shift coming with technology. The new age is going to give us an opportunity to rethink how we deliver aid and how we support people living in poverty and who are vulnerable.

It is time for us to start building the community to advocate for responsible data use, promotion of equity through the use of data, and to also build capacity within governments, civil society organizations, and donor powerhouses to have people who understand data and analytics and who can translate this knowledge into languages that the common person can understand. 

This is absolutely vital because otherwise where we will end up is where we were 50 years ago in a time where people who had knowledge and information used it and talked about it in ways only they understood. This is a new era, and we need to break down this power structure to bring knowledge to the people. We need to ensure that we are providing data to grassroots organizations and also to governments, civil society organizations, and donors, so that the next age finds us prepared.

  • Excerpts have been edited for clarity, brevity, and readability. View Caroline’s entire Fireside Chat conversation here.