Dana E. Schurmans is the Digital Inclusion expert at ACP Young Professional Network and PhD researcher at Université Catholique de Louvain (UCL) and Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB)
The international aid community has taken a recent interest in the developmental potential latent in the digital technology sector.
As the various institutions and partners come together to work towards implementing the goals outlined in the internationally recognised Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) initiative – a formal collection of 17 goals set out by the United Nations Development Programme in the hope that the proposed targets be met by 2030 – there must be a collective acknowledgment of the fact that universal access to digital ways of expression will only be a possibility when Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is applied to those living in remote and deprived communities. This right reminds us that everyone is entitled to freedom of opinion and expression, whether this means the freedom to hold opinions without interference or the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media platform, regardless of geographical frontiers.
Current development policies are actively delivering digital technologies and services: they invest in affordable and secure access, roll-out infrastructure, endorse digital literacy and skills, and promote digital participation. By doing so, these policies enable communities, both globally and locally, to search for and collect relevant information via the Internet. However, these strategies lack an appropriate framework for advising citizens on matters of inclusivity.
Traditional digital inclusion models are insufficient for effective policymaking
More often than not, people living in neglected communities are relegated to the side-lines and excluded from having an input in decisions that will directly affect them. Their absence from the decision-making process compromises their ability to engage with urgent contemporary challenges such as reducing poverty and hunger; achieving universal education; promoting gender equality; reducing child and maternal deaths; combatting HIV, malaria and other diseases; ensuring environmental sustainability and developing global partnerships. Moreover, traditional digital inclusion models are insufficient for effective policymaking, focusing overwhelmingly on educated, urban and predominantly privileged men who are not truly representative of the broader community.
A new political consent model which puts the narratives of people from remote and deprived communities at the heart of the digital development agenda should focus on three key components.
First and foremost, a certain set of measures should be undertaken if we wish to ensure that the views held by directly-impacted communities on the complex process of realising the ambitions of the UN Development Programme are included in national and international policy discussions. Such a development would promote a wider engagement with the discourse.
Development aid policies must be flexible and willing to adapt in order to meet the demands of new challenges and threats
Second, through the provision of relevant platforms, individuals from these communities could be given the space and support necessary for confidently voicing their opinions.
Both of these actions would pave the way for the third component to take effect: the creation of a community of individuals who are united under a shared interest in the delivery, and subsequently accomplishment, of SDGs.
In a fast moving and increasingly digitalised world, development aid policies must be flexible and willing to adapt in order to meet the demands of new challenges and threats. For digital technology to effectively benefit developing countries, a human right-based approach, founded on a commitment to listen to and understand women, men and children across the globe, would mark the first of a series of crucial steps towards concentrating the distribution of development aid where it is most needed.
IMAGE CREDIT: CC/Flickr - Jan Arendtsz