Data security can bridge equity gaps. Here's how

Health workers collect personal data from a man as they prepare a list during a door-to-door survey for the first shot of COVID-19 vaccine for people above 50 years of age and those with comorbidities, in a village on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, India, December 14, 2020. REUTERS/Amit Dave - RC21NK9S3WNP
Paper-based data collection is still commonplace and is open to abuse.
Image: REUTERS/Amit Dave.
  • Growth of digital economy highlights how the world’s most disadvantaged are exposed to poor data security.
  • Development organizations understand local sensitivities but lack the digital knowledge needed to protect privacy of these communities.
  • The private sector can offer expertise to protect the rights of marginalized populations.

The acceleration to a digital economy over the last year has shone a light on the question: how do we ensure the digitization of services is equitable, so our most vulnerable communities aren’t pushed further behind?

For any organization, group or entity to deliver services consistently, there has to be an exchange of information with an individual – whether that’s to enable access to healthcare, education, or financial aid. Right now, in humanitarian and development settings, that information is too often insecure. Digital technology can bring transparency to agricultural markets, get cash assistance to families, and help keep children in school.

But humanitarian and development service providers have often relied on manual paper-based methods for storing personal information about beneficiaries. In other cases, agencies may store personal information on files on personal laptops – which are not secured and can be easy to hack or share without any limitation.

There are many examples where vulnerabilities in the system have been exploited, and it’s both frustrating, and irresponsible, not to bring in expertise to prevent the avoidable. People living on less than $2 a day need the same protection as the affluent. Arguably they need more, when you consider factors like unstable political regimes, catastrophic climate events, and health pandemics. Unsecured data is at best a liability, and at worst, life threatening. These communities have a need and the right to have their information protected. As organizations are delivering services, they must design safe, secure systems that allow people to transact digitally on their own terms.

Global leaders are currently navigating the very real challenges of equitably distributing vaccinations and therapeutics across the world. The prioritization, provision and tracking of inoculations has already met hurdles in the US, with states not receiving their expected doses, and leaders struggling to figure out a fair process to determine eligibility and distribute accordingly. Imagine trying to accomplish this globally when 1 billion people lack a formal identity and 3.4 billion people can’t get access to basic services.

How is the World Economic Forum helping to improve humanitarian assistance?

Fragility and conflict in one country often has consequences around the world. This has been evidenced by the COVID-19 pandemic, numerous climate emergencies as well as the war in Ukraine and the ensuing refugee crisis. Regions affected by conflict are particularly vulnerable to the devastating impacts of these crises.

Urgent relief, supported by public-private partnerships, remains necessary in acute crises but it is essential those efforts are supplemented by long-term investments that help affected communities recover and rebuild.


The World Economic Forum is working with partners to identify and scale solutions in fragile parts of the world. The Humanitarian and Resilience Investing (HRI) Initiative seeks to unlock private capital so it flows into financially sustainable opportunities that benefit vulnerable communities. The Global Future Council on the New Agenda for Fragility and Resilience provides guidance to humanitarian and development actors as well as the private sector to improve support to local actors and facilitate responses that strengthen community resilience.

To learn more and get involved in initiatives that are improving millions of lives, contact us.

This global pandemic has irrefutably demonstrated that our collective wellbeing is intertwined, and that the needs and challenges of every country around the world must be addressed, if we are to curb the spread. But this is just one urgent need. We must think long-term and build efficient and scalable systems and processes that ensure sustained service delivery to those impacted by crises. Achieving that goal requires the deployment of digital tools in a way that improves lives and livelihoods without compromising privacy.

Building digital service delivery ecosystems is complex and gets even more difficult when we are trying to address hard to reach populations. The only way we will accomplish this is to rely on experts to do what they do best. For example, payment technology companies know how to create secure digital networks. It’s challenging, complex work that requires (among other things) privacy by design and increasing levels of cybersecurity expertise. This isn’t an area where you can paper over the cracks.

Equally, NGOs and UN agencies have a deep understanding of the communities on the ground and how to manage complex political environments for optimal outcomes. This knowledge is critical for the successful implementation of sustainable programs. We need to build trust and get more comfortable with engaging experts and building together – allowing each expert to manage their piece of the pie rather than expecting each entity to build the whole solution on their own. In this way a digital payments company such as Mastercard can implement a secure digital infrastructure while a humanitarian agency controls the distribution of relief funding.

Image: Mastercard

Without a doubt, there are non-trivial concerns with increasing use of digital technologies, but we must design to solve for these concerns, and not squander the opportunity that technology and data can play in driving inclusive economic growth across the globe. Private sector participation is crucial for enabling this goal but only through innovation that is responsible and human-centered. Mastercard’s core business is to enable safe, secure and consistent digital service delivery. To do so, we leverage privacy by design and responsible data practices, which protects individuals and their rights, ensuring each person controls who accesses their data and for what purposes.

The establishment and implementation of industry standards and transparency about company practices are two positive steps that are helping to build more trust in the digital age. For example, the Ten Principles on Identification for Sustainable Development from the World Bank are one example of how organizations are aligning for the right outcomes.

Last year, Mastercard took the lead on launching The Global Data Responsibility Imperative based on four core promises to people: you own your data, you control it, you should benefit from the use of it, and we protect it. These tenets are upheld by Mastercard’s Data Responsibility Principles which place individuals and their rights at the centre of everything we do, from our data governance practices, to product development, to how we view and work with partners.

To achieve our vision of enabling digital access for vulnerable communities, we need collaborative public-private partnerships that focus on action and put people at the heart of the problem. We need to dissolve traditional stereotypes regarding who “qualifies” as a humanitarian and lean into our strengths. Thoughtful vetting of needs, programme design, and partners is critical; but skepticism for its own sake just blocks progress and compromises our ability to deliver services for those most in need. Not only is this the right thing to do for the individual, it is the right thing to do for the societies in which they live. Ultimately, doing so provides the stepping stones to a more sustainable and inclusive economy that benefits everyone – when individuals thrive, businesses do too.

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