Creating an enabling environment for civil society organisations to help shape Africa’s digital policies
Engaging civil society organisations is often an informal process or after-thought for policymakers across the African continent, according to Lucrezia Biteete, D4D senior expert at GIZ, the German development cooperation agency.
“Unfortunately, civil society is not always considered a key player when it comes to developing strategic plans or legislation on digital topics,” she says.
The expert explains that many countries do not yet have a clearly defined process for digital policymaking. As a result, sometimes different government agencies compete and develop parallel digital strategies without coordination. In the cases where specific agencies have been created to streamline digital policies, they are often in the early stages, lacking staff, resources, and political clout.
“While civil society organisations tend to lose out in this setup, it could actually be an opportunity for them,” she argues. “The digital sector is in a transition phase. From being considered a ‘tool’, it is now becoming an important part of all government matters, from security and international affairs to infrastructure and service delivery. This means that many processes and policies are being set up, so civil society organisations can have a say and put a multi-stakeholder and human-centric approach on the agenda.”
In the first part of this interview, Lucrezia discussed the importance of fostering civil society participation in digital policy spaces. In the second part, she shares her personal views on how to enable effective participation of civil society organisations, particularly in the context of Africa-Europe digital cooperation.
Q: Why is it important to create formal channels for civil society participation in digital policy fora?
LB: There are many ways to create formal channels for civil society participation that can institutionalise and protect their role as representatives of citizen groups. For example, a memorandum of understanding could be signed between a ministry and an umbrella organisation representing key civil society actors working on a topic of common interest like human rights. Such a set-up establishes a formal relationship. Another option could be to make civil society organisations part of a government process, like policy development, public audits or monitoring the use of public funds. Finally, civil society organisations could provide regular input to data collection and support monitoring, ensuring that priorities and strategies are based on evidence.
The realities of civil society organisations vary enormously from country to country, but in many cases, they do not have access to policymakers and there is no structural interaction between civil society organisations and governments. The whole multi-stakeholder and consultative approach to policy making is also still new in most countries. Worse, in many instances, civil society organisations suffer from increasingly restrictive legislation and aggressive application of laws that are meant to silence government criticism, especially around times of elections. In some countries, civil society organisations are even branded as political opposition, which hurts the entire civil society in the country including those addressing non-political topics. Ironically, there are examples of digital technologies being used by States to track and monitor activists.
Q: How can such channels be supported? In the context of Africa-Europe digital cooperation (which is the scope of the AU-EU D4D Hub project), what can be done?
LB: A powerful tool to support individual civil society organisations is to encourage them to organise in umbrella organisations and networks. This has many benefits: organisations can exchange with others working on digital issues, and governments and other partners have an organised structure through which they can reach many of them.
A good example is the Digital Human Rights Lab in Uganda, which gathers more than 100 grassroots organisations and CSOs working on digital topics. Belonging to the network gives organisations access to training, exchanges, digital tools, as well as funding opportunities. Another great example is the pan-African Civic Technology Innovation Network.
Moreover, as mentioned in the first part of the interview, capacity is still a challenge for many civil society organisations. They are often managed by volunteers without specialised training. There are many opportunities to do capacity building in organisation, accounting, grant management, proposal writing, advocacy, data management, research, digital tools, and digital topics. This type of support could make their work more professional, access new funding, and increase their reach.
Q: How does the AU-EU D4D Hub contribute to these efforts?
LB: First of all, one of the main intervention areas of the AU-EU D4D Hub is the facilitation of multi-stakeholder dialogues. This is very important as it provides a formal space for different actors of the digital ecosystem — including civil society organisations — to openly exchange, identify joint priorities, and share their perspectives. For example, in May 2022 we facilitated a multi-stakeholder dialogue in Uganda, which brought together 80 representatives of different ministries and public institutions, the private sector, academia, and both large international NGOs and local civil society organisations, in an effort to create synergies and advance Uganda’s digital priorities.
Multi-stakeholder dialogues provide a structural approach to engaging with civil society, but the AU-EU D4D Hub also facilitates other activities that contribute to strengthening civil society. For example, the project is supporting the efforts of the Office of the Auditor General in Kenya to establish a technology platform where citizens can send reports on public spending and public services using their phones. Civil society organisations are actively involved to mobilise citizens and disseminate information about the platform.
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.