What is digital equality? An interview with Nanjira Sambuli

equality

(Søren Astrup Jørgensen, Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Nanjira Sambuli, Digital Equality Advocate, World Wide Web Foundation & Silvia Magnoni, Head of Civil Society Communities , World Economic Forum


Nanjira Sambuli is a Kenyan researcher, writer and policy analyst. She is currently digital equality advocate at the World Wide Web Foundation. We caught up with her to ask about digital equality and how technology is changing the humanitarian sector.

Nanjira, you are a firm advocate of the concept of digital equality. What is it in practice?

In the simplest generalization, it’s about equality in the digital age – which remains a mirage for many. So it’s about dissecting the analog and the digital aspects of political, social, cultural, economic dimensions in society today, and ultimately striving to ensure that we do not widen inequalities through digital technologies.

For instance, only half of the world’s population is online; progress in getting more people connected has slowed down dramatically. Yet there was (and still remains) a “build it and they will come” mentality driving planning, innovation and investments in the technology sector. That is: make the internet and connecting devices available in the market, and voila!

Nanjira Sambuli
Image: World Wide Web Foundation

But digital technologies’ antecedent factors come into play here; for instance, inequalities between and within geographies (e.g. urban vs rural; developing countries vs developed countries), gendered inequalities (across the political, sociocultural and economic domains) all contribute to who gets to access and meaningfully use the internet, and tap into its benefits.

In devising solutions to address this, one example is about digging deeper into why the aforementioned inequalities persist and how digital technologies can be leveraged to rid of them altogether, to “leave no one behind” as the Sustainable Development Goals mantra goes.

Digital equality is as much about digging into history as it is about making sense of the present, while planning for the future. It’s this heady space that calls for lateral, cross-sectoral thinking to complement the vertical (sector-specific) expertise. Often, the latter is pursued over the former, leading us to the situation we are in today, where for instance, we are going to miss achieving a Sustainable Development Goal – specifically SDG 9C: to significantly increase access to information and communications technology and strive to provide universal and affordable access to the internet in least developed countries by 2020.

Lastly, digital equality – in my experience – is a policy issue. In particular, centering the role of public policy in taking in all these dimensions to develop coherent roadmaps towards addressing the complexity of issues in society today, that could easily be turbocharged by digital technologies, as they do not exist in a vacuum, unaffected by the realities affecting people in societies today.

How do you see civil society playing a role in influencing the governance of emerging technologies for inclusive outcomes? In general, how do you see the relationship of the civil society sector with technology?

First of all, I must commend civil society actors across the globe for the work they’ve already been doing to influence discourses, deployment and decisions on how emerging technologies could impact the communities they represent. This is the sector that has been leading the charge in countering the feverish tech solutionism that is still quite rampant with every new technology (we’ve seen this with the blockchain, for instance, just as we saw it with mobile apps a few years ago) that is assumed to be a silver bullet.

Civil society actors have also been meticulously articulating potential threats and documenting the very real harms that emerging technologies pose to people, the environment, and even in creating new digital divides. Unfortunately, all too often our warnings have fallen on deaf ears; now that these issues are coming to a head is when it seems that the message is finally being heeded.

By virtue of being steeped in the realities of the communities they represent, civil society has a crucial role in shaping the governance of these emerging technologies. This role need not be a reactive one; if engaged right from the onset, there are so many critical insights that civil society actors can bring to the table – from concept/idea stage, to design to deployment – that can mitigate against perpetrating exclusions, divisions and divides in societies through emerging technologies.

Civil Society

What is civil society?

Whether you call it “third sector”, “social sector” or “volunteerland”, civil society includes an array of different causes, groups, unions and NGOs. Their combined aim is to hold governments to account, promoting transparency, lobbying for human rights, mobilizing in times of disaster and encouraging citizen engagement.

Ranging from small online campaigns to giants such as Amnesty International and Greenpeace, civil society employs around 54 million full-time workers and has a global volunteer force of over 350 million.

The World Economic Forum is committed to accelerating the impact of civil society organizations. With a view to this, it created Preparing Civil Society for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, a multi-sectoral platform to support the transformation of the social sector and its inclusion in the governance of emerging technologies.

Civil society is a key stakeholder for driving public-private collaboration and advancing the Forum’s mission. Through dialogue series and platform initiatives, civil society actors from a wide range of fields come together to collaborate with government and business leaders on finding and advocating solutions to global challenges.

What needs to happen to make the sector more empowered and prepared for the challenges and opportunities ahead? Any particular sectoral dynamics that need to change to unlock transformation?

For starters, more acknowledgement and appreciation of the work civil society has done so far, from those working within communities to those at the international level.

Shedding the conception that this is an adversarial sector to industry, government and development actors is urgently needed, as that idea is still quite prevalent.

It’s also an opportune time to address this, since the “move fast and break things” kind of thinking that’s driven other sectors insofar as emerging technologies goes has now shown – as civil society has known – that the things that break are indeed societies.

To proactively engage civil society calls for humility from the other sectors, to accept that it may entail slowing down the pace at which we roll out emerging technologies to accommodate reflection and testing of all hypotheses at every stage.

 

It also means that for all sectors to work together on ensuring emerging technologies lead to inclusive outcomes, other sectors will need to also stop infantilizing civil society – by assuming/attempting to dictate its role, or omitting it altogether.

The sector needs resource support (funding) to continue playing its critical role, and in many cases, to adapt its work and structuring to the impacts of digitalization. There are gigantic expectations placed on civil society, all too often with very little consideration of the fact that it’s a lot of labour, and that it cannot be powered by passion or values alone.

Additionally, we need urgent reforms in how said funding is structured. Gone are the days when one can plan for projects or programmes on one specific issue; digitalization is blowing wide open the siloed approach to addressing issues. As I stated above, achieving digital equality calls for lateral thinking and working, ergo “lateral support” (i.e. unrestricted funding).

Nor should it be assumed that the sector is homogenous or represented by specific actors (be they international ones, or those that have existed for decades). Just as with industry, where you have established players (big tech) as well as startups, it cannot be assumed that their perspectives on challenges and opportunities ahead are similar for the communities that civil society represent.

Advertising

the sting Milestone

Featured Stings

Can we feed everyone without unleashing disaster? Read on

These campaigners want to give a quarter of the UK back to nature

How to build a more resilient and inclusive global system

Stopping antimicrobial resistance would cost just USD 2 per person a year

Four years on and half a billion dollars later – Tax Inspectors Without Borders

5 lessons for the future success of virtual and augmented reality

EU legislation protecting home buyers approved in Parliament

Could a Digital Silk Road solve the Belt and Road’s sustainability problem?

How to stop data leaks

These countries have the most nuclear reactors

Reparations for sexual violence in conflict – ‘what survivors want most, yet receive least’

EU tourism industry expects a new record year in 2014

COP21 Breaking News_05 December: Carbon Price Needed for Climate Change Success

Afghanistan: top UN official denounces ‘extreme’ suffering of civilians in Ghazni

UN highlights importance of skills development on World Youth Skills Day

The status of the Code of Medical Ethics: loading

Brexit Update: EU endorses unprecedented compromise to help Cameron out of the referendum mess he got himself into

On World Bee day, human activity blamed for falling pollinator numbers

EYE to kick off on Friday: 8000+ young people discussing the future of Europe 1 – 2 June

At global health forum, UN officials call for strong, people-focused health systems

With Gaza violence ‘escalating as we speak,’ UN envoy calls for ‘immediate stop’

2014 budget: The EU may prove unable to agree on own resources

Harnessing the power of nature in the fight against climate change

The Philippines is reopening a ‘cesspool’ island after a six month clean up

Parliaments broadly agree on next steps for economic, monetary union

Brain drain 2017: why do medical students need to emigrate to become doctors in 2017?

Larger species are more at risk of extinction than smaller ones – here’s why

The EU Commission predicts a decimated growth in the next years

Postal workers in France are helping elderly people fight loneliness

Commission issues guidance on the participation of third country bidders in the EU procurement market

Backed by UN agency, countries set to take on deadly livestock-killing disease

These are the 3 key skill sets workers will need to learn by 2030

‘Crimes against humanity,’ ‘war crimes’ and risk of new ethnic violence in DR Congo, warn UN experts

EU and China to do more in common if the global scene gets worse

Making the most of the Sustainable Development Goal 3: its overlooked role in medical education

The future of science could be in your gut. Here’s why

Access to health in the developping world

UN chief ‘deeply alarmed’ over military offensive in south-west Syria

Children are so hungry in one British town they are eating from bins

Citing public anger and youth activism, OECD Secretary-General urges governments to heed calls for climate action

Gynecologic care in the 21st century

“The Arctic climate matters: to what degree?”, a Sting Exclusive co-authored by UN Environment’s Jan Dusik and Slava Fetisov

EU Commission – US hasten talks to avoid NGO reactions on free trade agreement

Portugal: €4.66 million in aid for 1,460 dismissed workers and jobless young

This Chinese tech giant’s latest gadget is… a bus

“No labels for entrepreneurs!”, a young business leader from Italy cries out

FROM THE FIELD: Malawi farmers diversify to fight climate change

“The Sea is vast as it admits all rivers”, Ambassador Yang Yanyi of the Chinese Mission to EU gives her farewell address in Brussels

UN chief hopes for new agreement after Israel concludes international observation mission

Preparing Africa for ravages of climate change ‘cannot be an afterthought’ – COP24

Globalization is changing. Here’s how your business can adapt

Cohesion Policy: EU invests €880 million to improve Poland’s railway system

Security Council beats midnight deadline, renews Syria cross-border aid in contentious vote

Greece: Tsipras’ referendum victory does not solve the financial stalemate of the country and its banks

Election-related violence claims 85 lives in Afghanistan: UN report

Why climate change matters for future health professionals

Wind farms now provide 14% of EU power – these countries are leading the way

Bayer-Monsanto merger: the story of the rise of the “endless company”

“As German Chancellor I want to be able to cope with the merger of the real and digital economy”, Angela Merkel from Switzerland; the Sting reports live from World Economic Forum 2015 in Davos

2019 EU Budget: Commission proposes a budget focused on continuity and delivery – for growth, solidarity, security

Climate change as determinant of health: the 21st Century challenge

LETTER FROM AFGHANISTAN: Elections serve up food for thought, for Afghan youth

The creative technology and its advancements

European Semester: The Winter Package explained

More Stings?

Speak your Mind Here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s