In a world where the fundamental human values of liberty, equality and fraternity are being challenged by digital technologies, research on how these technologies impact inequality and migration has never been more pressing.
Digital technologies are often implicated in stories around migration. Mobiles and mobile apps offer a lifeline for migrants in vulnerable situations; a means to connect with their past and to engage with their present.
But in many countries, digital technologies are also at the centre of state surveillance and anti-migrant propaganda. Access to technologies and capacity to use them effectively also vary across communities and individuals. Digital technologies create a kind of paradox: they empower but also create vulnerabilities and even inequalities.
How we use digital technologies to address the migration-inequality-development nexus matters. The values that underpin these efforts matter more. Migrant technology can only genuinely claim to address migrant concerns when it starts and ends with those affected by these technologies – the migrant themselves.
But this raises a couple of questions. How are the problems that migrants face being addressed by digital technologies? Will these technologies create other problems, vulnerabilities or inequalities? How can we fundamentally shift the focus of migrant technology research from the technologies that underpin it to the values that underpin their use?
Answers to these difficult questions aren’t easy. As we embark on a five-year project to understand the role Information Communication Technology (ICT) can play in addressing inequalities in the context of South-South migration, here are three key principles driving us:
- There is nothing inherently good about digital technology. It can be used to do good or harm.
- Digital development interventions are often technologically deterministic and have unintended social consequences. Both can lead to failure. Therefore, we must address not just the technological aspects, important as they are, but also the social processes that underpin their use in particular contexts. Different migration contexts may have different needs, and may likely need different kinds of technological interventions.
- Development outcomes and meaningful user engagement are not inevitable in technology-related interventions. We must find ways to engage users in their context to ensure that interventions are both relevant and sustainable, while maximising positive outcomes and minimising negative social impacts.
Migrant technology research needs to put values at its core. It must reflect the values that we privilege, particularly when we are required to make difficult trade-offs.
When freedom of choice is constrained by the socio-political and legal context, when equality of access is constrained by the cultural context, or when fraternity is impeded by privacy concerns in risky and vulnerable contexts – these values will be integral.
Ultimately, recognising the multifaceted nature of the migrant context means being particularly mindful of the values we may seek to promote through technology interventions.