Organizations committed to equal, inclusive and sustainable development can take steps to promote a technology ecosystem rooted in human rights, agreed participants at a recent seminar exploring development and digital access co-organized by WACC and the CDAC Network.
Information and communication technologies lacking a human rights foundation perpetuate and exacerbate injustice, with the potential to destroy the way of life of Indigenous and other minority peoples, said moderator Marian Casey-Maslen (CDAC). “Are we too complacent about this global issue?” she asked.
The majority of countries are already digitally colonized, stressed keynote speaker Sarah Macharia, WACC program manager for Gender and Communication and global coordinator of WACC’s Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP). What varies, she noted, is the extent of colonialization.
Digital colonialization in Kenya
Macharia presented the example of Kenya, also known as the Silicon Savannah, one of four leading global hubs for tech innovation and home to Konza Technopolis, a smart city still under development.
While regulatory frameworks reflect a grounding in human rights principles and recognize gender inequalities in access, digital policies have “no option but to be tempered by realities,” Macharia said.
Despite the advances being made, the balance of power in the Kenyan tech sector lies in foreign hands, Macharia said. Of Africa’s 50 fastest growing tech firms, eight are in Kenya, but only one was founded by a local entrepreneur. “The only thing that’s Kenyan about the majority of these companies is the name.”
Though 70% of Kenya tech start-ups were in fact founded by local entrepreneurs, such companies raise on average only a tenth of the capital that international entrepreneurs can mobilize, according to Macharia. “The evidence shows that in general less than 5% of local tech start-ups succeed in attracting investors.”
“For women the playing field is even more uneven,” Macharia added, noting that only one of four tech start-ups in Kenya has a woman co-founder or CEO and that female founders struggle to raise funding. She pointed to unequal gender representation as well, with women making up only 30% of the tech workforce compared to 60% of paid labor more generally.
Digital as a gendered experience
The WACC gender and media expert stressed that the digital world is a gendered experience for women, one in which they are subject to harassment and abuse that “tramples their right to freedom of expression in the digital sphere.” She noted the limits of AI, even socially responsible, feminist AI, which is mainly western-centric.
Macharia urged development agencies interested in gender equality to promote truth-telling about tech’s impact on women’s rights and lives and to focus on overcoming structural sexism and discrimination within the tech ecosystem and not only on addressing individual actions.
It’s also important to create opportunities for women worldwide to understand the commonalities of their experiences, she stressed, and to enable mutual support and mentoring.
Regulation as part of the solution?
Panelists Corinne Barnes (University of the West Indies, WACC Board), Sylvia Musalagani (Meta), Michael Mosselmans (Christian Aid) and Richard Lace (BBC Media Action) agreed that though regulation is needed, on its own it is not enough, and enforcing any regulations presents a significant challenge.
It was noted that regulation has seen some success, for example in stopping a measure of harassment and hate speech and in holding some individuals and companies to account, but enforcement remains a big issue. Due to the complexity of digital technologies and the rapid pace of tech development, regulation often cannot keep pace. It also cannot capture the nuances of the issues at play nor address barriers to access that affect women in particular.
Panelists echoed the need for development communicators to focus on underlying structural discrimination in society by exploring ways to help shift attitudes around gender and to make human rights and gender equality a higher priority in the digital sector.
Audience members took up the need to address economic issues at play when it comes to regulation. Enforcing regulations means going against the profit interests of tech companies, whose economic power cannot be matched by most governments. A suggestion was made that a different paradigm may be needed to begin seeing communications as a public good that shouldn’t be left to companies to regulate or ensure its availability.
Small steps in collaboration
Seminar participants concluded that collaboration must be a guiding principle to foster more equitable digital pathways to inclusion. It is not enough to enforce regulations; cross-sector collaboration is needed to ensure justice.
Macharia urged development communicators and organizations to keep questions of power and control in the foreground while addressing access. She admitted that wrestling some power away from Big Tech and putting it into the hands of marginalized groups would take great effort, but this doesn’t mean simply giving up.
“With partnerships it is possible to draw on strengthens and experiences of each to do something. It’s possible to make steps bit by bit,” she concluded.
WACC is a member of the CDAC Network, a global alliance of humanitarian and media development organizations that prioritize communication, community engagement and accountability to people affected by disasters. The seminar “Development and Digital Access: Are we fostering equitable pathways to inclusion?” was held in the framework of the WACC UK Board of Directors meeting in London on 10–12 May 2023.