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Digital doesn’t have to be a development issue

Written by Jonathan Tanner

Hero image description: Advocacy group Avaaz organises a protest to call attention to disinformation on Facebook, Washington D.C., 2018 Image credit:Joe Flood Image license:CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Advocacy group Avaaz organises a protest to call attention to disinformation on Facebook, Washington D.C., 2018
Image credit:Joe Flood ~ Image license:CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

One of the most interesting aspects of the public policy conversations about emerging technology is the simultaneous nature of many challenges countries around the world are facing.

The use of facial recognition on the streets of London which hit the headlines recently is being pursued with a lack of regulatory oversight or public consent that would produce knowing sympathy from citizens in Nairobi and Harare.

The role of disinformation in influencing elections has been under the spotlight during almost every poll in recent years. From WhatsApp in India and Brazil to Facebook in Kenya and the US and Twitter in Nigeria and the UK.

This simultaneity, along with the speed of innovation, presents an opportunity to leave behind the more outdated ideological furniture of the development sector whilst preserving what’s best about modern international cooperation.

For some, ‘development’ is synonymous with efforts to end global poverty via economic and social means. For others it carries the baggage of asymmetrical power relationships and self-interest disguised as selflessness. Neither view is invalid and nor are they mutually exclusive, but most would agree the world is moving on.

Of course, different countries face different contexts, but many digital dilemmas cut across income-derived country categories or labels like ‘low-income’ and ‘developing’.

Different digital journeys

This is why we should consider avoiding the temptation to approach digital as a ‘development’ problem (or opportunity), even if many of the same actors have something to contribute. Given the scale of transformation ahead and the absence of evidence about what works, we should expect countries to undertake very different digital journeys.

Across the world societies are faced with a shared set of difficult policy dilemmas for which there are no proven answers. In the years ahead, we can confidently predict disruption to job markets from further automation, social tension over civil liberties infringements, changing trade patterns as efforts to address climate change influence demand for natural resources and continued disruption of our information ecosystem.

It is refreshing to recognise that no one country or group of countries currently knows better than any other when it comes to how we create successful digital societies. Unlike the provision of basic public utilities, services and infrastructure, richer nations can’t adopt an often unintentional ‘been there, done that’ superiority when discussing effective regulatory frameworks for AI or what an ethical digital identity system looks like.

Solutions will require creative, flexible and innovative thinking

Addressing these issues whilst mitigating against the risks of deeper inequality and greater marginalisation is no easy task. Solutions will likely require creative, flexible and innovative thinking from governments not always renowned for doing things differently.

Amongst citizen groups the likely erosion of language barriers could very well spur new cross-border alliances with the scale to influence political processes in multiple countries. The lack of public awareness about the scope of data gathering by smart devices like phones, watches, TVs and Alexas is a recipe for the widely trailed ‘techlash’. The potential for a gradual erosion of liberty to occur in parallel will only add fuel to the fire.

The nature of these disruptions mean that new social contracts are likely to be an essential starting point for governments and citizens looking to create successful digital societies.

Governments will need to make evidence-informed decisions about policies and proactively seek the informed consent of citizens for some of the more seismic changes ahead. People will also need to develop new skills to navigate life as a digital citizen against a backdrop of less privacy and growing disinformation. Corporations will need to recognise the importance of these processes and work with the grain of a collective social will which may lead to greater pressure to decarbonise or disinvest in unethical tech.

There is no linear route to creating a successful digital society

We mustn’t make the assumption which has at times befallen the development sector that there is a linear route to creating a successful digital society. Economic, social and political needs will rarely be met in equal measure. Governments who seek citizen consent to new regulatory frameworks around data, privacy and social protection may not achieve efficiency gains as quickly as those with less regard for democratic legitimacy for example. 

Aid-centric responses, still beloved of many development actors, are likely to be anathema to the political leaders and business owners of emerging economies as they forge new partnerships for the 21st century.

Collaboration over knowledge and expertise via international networks on the other hand will be in high demand. Many of the first-mover organisations in the field of digital public policy inherently understand this. A quick look over the websites of Apolitical, Caribou and the Digital Impact Alliance doesn’t turn up too many mentions of the ‘D word’.

As part of an organisation rooted in development, our Digital Societies team is mindful of the potential for new technology to reduce poverty and understand the importance of building inclusive digital societies. At the same time, we are wary of 3D printed silver bullets and committed to retaining an agnostic view on where in the world the best ideas will be found to help us get to grips with the future. It’s going to be an exciting journey.