“It Is Our Task to Ensure That Human Rights and Values Drive Digital Technologies”

How can the international community respond to the social, ethical, legal, and economic implications that come with digital technologies in order to maximize their benefits and minimize their harm? The United Nations asked experts from around the world to find ways for an improved and effective digital cooperation. Nanjira Sambuli from Kenia joined the UN High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation, which gave its recommendations in the report “The Age of Digital Interdependence”.

Klaus Voßmeyer | February 2020
Porträt Nanjira Sambuli

Nanjira Sambuli

is a researcher, policy analyst and advocacy strategist interested in and working on understanding the unfolding impacts of ICT adoption and how those impact governance, innovation, entrepreneurship and societal culture, with a keen focus on gender implications. She was Senior Policy Manager at the World Wide Web Foundation and worked at the iHub in Nairobi.

Growing opportunities created by the application of digital technologies are paralleled by stark abuses and unintended consequences. Are you more of an optimist or pessimist looking at the digital age?

I’m a cautious optimist. On one hand, I advocate for universal, affordable and meaningful access to the internet, as a primary driver to ensuring equality in the digital age. Yet, as we know, the internet and more specifically, the web hasn’t lived up to the utopian dreams that drove its development. Even as I work in this domain, I’m critical of propagating techno-solutionism; we cannot have digital technologies exacerbating existing inequalities or creating new ones. It remains a difficult, yet necessary task to ensure that human rights and human values drive the design, deployment and governance of these technologies. Working within the spectrum of positives and negatives, to me, is critical to maintain hopes for what digital technologies can and cannot do. 

The Secretary-General asked you and the other experts on the Panel to consider how digital cooperation can contribute to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Can you give us an example of where digital technology is contributing to solving global challenges?

Evidence abounds that digital technologies are helping address most, if not all global challenges. However, it’s not necessarily a net-positive. For instance, it’s marvelous to see how much women and minorities across the world have taken to the web, leveraging the popular platforms on which we converge, to speak up, speak out, to (re)write themselves into history, as actors with expertise, with ideas, with hopes and dreams. At the same time, these very groups face enormous risks for engaging thusly. Not to mention that this agency is dependent on the affordability and accessibility of the enabling technologies to participate. We could go through every SDG and find good examples of progress, but it’s high time that we also tempered any celebrations with the attendant risks and tradeoffs. This way, we can address these challenges sooner rather than later, especially when very real harms have already been experienced.

It means placing marginalized groups front and center

As in analogue life, money and power often dominate in the digital world as well. How can the international community respond in order to have a common basis for digital cooperation and how can human rights and universal values like trust and respect be strengthened in the digital world?

The work of our Panel was to bring to bear our interdependence in the digital age; to call on actors at local, regional and international or global configurations to explore ways of working together to achieve common bases for digital cooperation. For instance, we asserted that human rights apply online as they do offline, something that even the Human Rights Council at the UN has also declared. The work of establishing ‘how’ is one key recommendation to the Secretary-General to conduct consultations, inviting contributions from across the board and compile a compendium of examples, roadmaps and recommendations which can in turn be targeted to governments, private sector, civil society and other stakeholders. 

One of your recommendations is to give affordable access to digital networks to everyone until 2030 and to leave no one behind. What does this mean with regard to the marginalized groups you are working with?

It means placing them front and center, having the ‘leave no one behind’ mantra center those already left behind. For example, marginalized groups across Africa, Asia, Latin America and even the United States, are claiming their agency and developing their own community-owned networks to afford them internet access. Tired of waiting for interventions from governments and private sector, they are showcasing the fact that they can build what’s appropriate for them. The work ahead is to ensure they receive the requisite support to sustain these initiatives, such as removing any regulatory barriers that may raise the cost to operate their networks. It’s unfortunate that given the current rates of progress to connecting the unconnected, we could miss the 2030 goal. However, the aforementioned efforts, centering those marginalized, can fast-track achieving this goal. I believe it calls for pause in propagating top-down, interventionalist approaches to any development, and instead working with communities to co-design solutions that are appropriate and sustainable within their contexts.

Members of the UN High-level panel on digital cooperation together with Secretary-General Guterres

Members of the High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation meet UN Secretary-General António Guterres to hand over their final recommendations. Nanjira Sambuli is second from the left.

Why do you think the UN is the right organization to address these issues and take the initiative?

The UN’s three foundational pillars – peace and security, human rights and development – position it well to help spotlight issues emerging in the digital age and advocate on behalf of humanity’s best interests. I strongly believe that the UN can drive further the realization of the recommendations. It has a global reach, and most importantly, can bring member states into the discussions that are already happening across other sectors. Governments have a very crucial role to play in this age of digital interdependence. It often seems as though digital technologies are primarily the remit of private sector innovators. As many companies behind most of the technologies in our lives become powerful and even richer than some countries, they are, however, not elected by people. Thus governments - and intergovernmental organizations that in turn are driven by mandates issued them by countries - must be part of the deliberations, and not just when trouble has brewed. It is possible to design proactive, consultative, representative ways to shape how digital developments ensure that we all reap the benefits, and more importantly eradicate any (un)intended harms. 

Digital cooperation is fast rising on the agenda of discourses of governance; as the ‘motherboard of global governance’, the UN can carve out a key role, to convene and represent the perspectives of other sectors as well. I hope that we will see this, especially as the 75th anniversary of the UN comes up, and deliberations on the future of multilateralism are paired with the role of technologies in our turbulent world.

What starts off in one ‘niche’, say, purely technical developments can have impacts in other areas

What are your major takeaways from the Panel’s discussions?

It was a great pleasure to serve on the Panel, along other distinguished experts. The panel’s composition itself was testament to the objective of finding ways to enhance cooperation in the digital age, drawing expertise from diverse backgrounds spanning sectors, geographies and age groups. One key takeaway is that there indeed is an appreciation of the urgency to foster interdisciplinary approaches for designing, deploying, governing and accounting for how digital technologies impact all aspects of our political, sociocultural, legal, economic, and civic lives. What starts off in one ‘niche’, say, purely technical developments can have impacts in other areas. Given the fast-paced nature of these digital disruptions, it can seem heady to take time and consult widely and calibrate intended benefits against possible harms. Our discussions and consultations therefore took both sectoral and lateral views. 

Can you give us a concrete example?

Take digital financial inclusion, for instance. Does it come with any tradeoffs? How to assess desired impact against values such as autonomy, since inferences like credit-worthiness are determined based on the resulting data from engaging in digital financial systems? Those operating outside these systems, as with cash, could inadvertently be mischaracterized if they don’t fit neatly within the metrics used to analyze, predict and even determine who gets access, to digitized financial services. The work ahead is in assessing and implementing the ‘how’; the Panel proposed some models for enhancing digital cooperation in chapter 4 of the report, to inform how such aspects are measured against each other. 

Secretary-General António Guterres has launched a global discussion on the report and its results. What will be the next steps for you and the other experts on the High-level Panel? 

I’ve already been spending a great deal of time joining as many fora as possible to socialize the report and its recommendations. It was wonderful, for instance, to join the Robert Bosch Stiftung and snv in October, to discuss the architectures for digital cooperation that we proposed in the report. The outcomes have been submitted to the Office of the Secretary-General for consideration. I remain committed to ensuring that we find the called-for ways of working together, and as an advocate for the work of the High-level Panel. I will also be spending next year assessing how existing global governance mechanisms can adapt to address the arising challenges and opportunities in digital developments, and feeding back to the various avenues through which I engage in my work. We are still in touch as a Panel, keeping each other updated on our observations in our various corners of the world, with respect to the report and the ongoing next steps.