Why civil society is key to a truly inclusive and human-centric digital transformation
One of the core principles of the African Union — European Union (AU-EU) Digital for Development (D4D) Hub is putting people at the centre of the Africa-Europe digital partnership. Among other things, this approach involves protecting human rights, closing the gender, rural-urban and age digital divides, and strengthening participation through digital tools.
To achieve this objective, however, civil society organisations must play a role in shaping digital policies, explains Lucrezia Biteete, D4D senior expert at GIZ, the German development cooperation agency.
“Civil society organisations are an important mechanism to reach vulnerable groups and help policymakers understand the needs of different segments of society,” she says.
In this interview — the first of two parts — the Kampala-based expert reflects on the many roles that civil society organisations can play in making the digital transformation a driver for inclusion and development.
Q: Why is it important to foster the participation of civil society and grassroots organisations in digital policy fora?
LB: Civil society organisations, defined as any non-state, non-profit, and non-violent structure through which people organise in the pursuit of shared ideas, are essentially organised groups through which governments can reach every citizen, even in remote areas. They are instrumental in making everyone’s voices heard, closing gaps, and promoting more inclusive digital policies.
For example, in many African countries, the realities of a policymaker in the capital and of a small-scale farmer in a rural area are very different. The gap can be even wider than, let’s say, between a civil servant in Brussels and that same African policymaker. Civil society organisations act as vehicles or bridges between these groups.
Civil society organisations also support representation from all areas of a country in national debates. While in general civil society organisations tend to be stronger in the capitals, there are many grassroots organisations in rural and remote areas that can be engaged, and through which communities can be mobilised. This balance is especially important in countries where ethnic belonging reinforces the urban-rural divide, and some ethnic groups or minorities are excluded from the policy dialogue as a result.
Q: How do civil society organisations help shape a more inclusive digital transformation?
LB: An inclusive digital transformation means that the needs of vulnerable and marginalised groups should be at the heart of policymaking. In practice, this means that policies should not only not have any adverse effects on these groups, but they should also ensure that additional efforts are made to reach them.
These groups often face additional barriers to making their voices heard. Sometimes they represent a small minority, they are victims of stigmatisation, or they have very specific needs. Civil society organisations do a tremendous job in raising the concerns of these groups in the public debate.
For some of these groups, access to technology can greatly change their daily lives for the better. For example, ensuring network coverage in refugee camps or giving refugees digital identity cards can help them find a job or access financial services.
I would also like to make a point about a vulnerable group that is not really a minority, but half of the population: women. In many countries, women are excluded from the opportunities created by the digital transformation, mainly due to education, culture, bias, stigma, or financial barriers. In this sense, women groups (a form of civil society organisations) provide strong support networks. For example, having access to a support group at work can help women have a much better chance to get promotions, advance their careers, or report harassment cases. Women entrepreneurship organisations have also proven a powerful tool to get access to microcredit, promote access to government and financial services, and improve digital literacy.
Finally, there are many forward-looking civil society organisations that are leading the way in new digital trends. While for many governments topics such as “ethical AI” or “twin transition” are still new and poorly understood, many civil society organisations are already working on these issues.
Q: What are the barriers that civil society faces to making their voice heard in the digital field?
LB: We can group civil society organisations into two categories: first, the early adopters, and second, the traditional civil society organisations that have progressively adopted digital tools.
The early adopters are new civil society organisations that are formed with a digital cause in mind. For example, protecting data and privacy, tackling cyber harassment, or fostering green and digital innovation. These organisations, to which I referred to earlier, are very advanced in terms of understanding the topic and use of digital technologies.
The other category includes more traditional human rights or civil society organisations working with vulnerable groups. These organisations sometimes benefit from digital tools to improve their reach (for example, they use social media for their advocacy campaigns), but later they might also get involved in digital topics such as protecting human rights in the digital space. This is a pattern that I have observed through my work both in Europe and in Africa.
Both categories face issues linked to limited capacity, although in different areas. Whereas the early adopters might find it difficult to carry out effective advocacy or fundraising, the traditional civil society organisations sometimes have limited knowledge of digital tools and digital topics.
In Africa, where the AU-EU D4D Hub operates, the work of civil society organisations is also hindered by infrastructure challenges. In many rural areas, access to connectivity and power is still a major obstacle to reaching communities. In addition, smartphone penetration in rural areas lags far behind than in urban areas. Smartphones are very important to facilitate communications and engage with citizens.
Finally, a significant obstacle is that in many countries there is no formal structure for civil society to be consulted and engaged in shaping digital policies. This is an issue that we will explore more in detail in the second part of this interview.
About the interviewee
Lucrezia Biteete is a D4D Senior Expert at GIZ, the German Development Agency. A mother of three, she has lived in Uganda for the last 14 years. In her current role, she is the GIZ representative at the operational steering committee of the AU-EU D4D Hub project, and she coordinates the Innovation Dialogues Europe Africa (IDEA) D4D Hub project. In addition, she advises the Global D4D Hub Secretariat on the involvement of civil society. Prior to joining GIZ, Lucrezia set up the coding academy Refactory, served as the managing director of the software company Laboremus Uganda Ltd, participated in the effort to integrate the banking sector into the national ID database in Uganda, and was part of launching the fintech Emata in its early stages. She also sits on the board of the blockchain startup Diwala.