Civil Society

What is digital equality? An interview with Nanjira Sambuli

How can civil society protect against the unknown effects of new technologies? Image: Xianjuan Hu / Unsplash

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

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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.

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What is civil society?

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.

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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.

Civil Society in the Fourth Industrial Revolution: Preparation and Response: read our full whitepaper here. It is part of the Preparing Civil Society for the Fourth Industrial Revolution initiative led by the World Economic Forum in partnership with social sector organizations.

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Related topics:
Civil SocietyEmerging TechnologiesResilience, Peace and Security
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