Embracing new technology may seem like an unwelcome burden among the myriad of challenges already facing the development sector. However, rapid technological advancements such as artificial intelligence (AI) – if used wisely – have game-changing potential.

By Cathy Duff, thought leadership director at Trialogue

Finding ways to adopt and integrate AI into development sector efforts will play an indispensable role in shaping a sustainable future.

AI, particularly machine learning and natural language processing, has already demonstrated its transformative power across multiple industries, such as enhancing vehicle safety and revolutionising healthcare diagnostics. Although the technology now permeates many aspects of our lives, the development sector has been slow to actively adopt AI in its processes.

Research by Trialogue shows that, while 35% of South African companies were already investing in AI for core operations in 2023, only 15% of non-profit organisations (NPOs) were doing so. Only 10% of South African companies had invested in AI to support their corporate social investment (CSI) efforts.

As the for-profit sector eagerly embraces AI, it is time for the development sector to follow suit. AI offers tools to streamline philanthropic operations and project rollouts and alleviate the chronic capacity shortages in non-profits. Embracing AI ethically and responsibly could usher in a new era of efficiency and effectiveness.

AI has the potential to make decision making more evidence-based and to better align development projects with areas of need. Leveraging machine learning algorithms and data analytics could help development organisations and CSI departments make more informed choices, ensuring resources are directed where they can have the most impact.

The interconnected nature of global challenges demands a collaborative and coordinated response. AI can serve as a platform for integrated coordination of international and national development projects. Its ability to analyse large datasets and identify patterns might also contribute to more efficient project management and foster cooperation between organisations working towards common goals.

The potential of AI as a tool for optimising operations and enhancing impact hold significant potential for philanthropy. Generative AI could be integrated to streamline grant applications, rapidly assessing funding requests based on alignment with organisations’ priorities and outcomes.

Meanwhile, natural language processing can quickly extract valuable information from reports, creating new avenues for conveying impact stories and fostering connections with grant partners.

Emerging technology might also make a difference to the chronic capacity shortages and high stress levels that challenge the development sector. AI could relieve human resources of certain routine administrative tasks such as data entry and project management functions, freeing up staff time for more meaningful, creative, value-driven activities.

One area where AI can make a significant impact is in fundraising. Finding funds is a perennial problem for the sector and the traditional model has witnessed a 20% decline in donor giving over the past two decades according to authors of The Smart Nonprofit: Staying Human-Centered in an Automated World.

Fundraising is ripe for innovation and AI’s ability to customise and personalise interactions might be the tool to reverse this trend, turning fundraising from a transactional process to a relational one. Better understanding of donor preferences and behaviours might enable non-profits to forge deeper connections with donors, delivering more sustainable support for causes.

As with all things however, knowledge without the wisdom to apply it for the greater good can come at a cost. Examination of AI’s alignment with the sustainable development goals (SDGs) reveals this nuanced relationship. While AI holds the potential to support the achievement of 79% of the SDG targets, it also poses challenges, notably in its carbon footprint and its tendency to reinforce potentially problematic societal biases.

Rapid AI advances make regulatory oversight of the technology imperative to ensure it aligns with societal values and contributes positively to development goals. AI has limited capacity to appreciate nuanced ethics and human emotion and the delicate balance between positive and negative impacts requires a thoughtful and responsible human approach.

Civil society has a valuable contribution to make in shaping the ethical deployment of AI. Philanthropic efforts and charitable giving, rooted in a commitment to social impact, has an important role to play in discussions on AI governance and regulation.

AI has already demonstrated its transformative power across various industries. As we navigate the complex web of global challenges, from climate crises to health disparities, the adoption of AI in the development sector is an opportunity to enhance its impact.

Responsible and ethical integration of AI that focuses on human-centred approaches has the potential to reduce workforce burdens and transform fundraising practices.

With adequate human oversight, ethical guidelines and continuous evaluation, we can maximise AI’s potential to deliver transformative change in our approach to global challenges.