Advocacy in the Digital Age and Challenges to maximize Impact in the Global South. Insights from the WHS

The United Nations World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) was held on May 23 and 24, 2016in Istanbul, Turkey,  organized by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA), under the initiative of the then Secretary-General of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon. With the fundamental aim to reform the humanitarian aid industry for more effectiveness and set a more global, accountable, and robust humanitarian system, the WHS’s specific objective was to help share knowledge and establish common best practices among the wide spectrum of organizations involved in humanitarian action. This is the reason why all the stakeholders, mainly world leaders, were expected to attend the summit and share their action’s plans to end the suffering of millions people affected by armed conflicts and disasters.

World Humanitarian Summit 2016

To better reach these world leaders and raise their awareness of the need not only to participate in the summit, but to set strategies in order to align with the envisioned reform for the humanitarian, UN OCHA has relied on digital communication. The Summit Secretariat has recruited hundreds of digital advocacy volunteers around the world. Their role was to spread the message as much as possible on social networks, inform, raise awareness and engage all stakeholders on the summit’s values. This digital advocacy brought together nearly 9,000 participants from 173 countries, including 55 heads of States and governments, hundreds of private sector representatives, and thousands of civil society and nongovernmental organizations.

The scope of such a digital campaign leads us to question the reformulation of advocacy as long as it uses digital communication’s tools. What is the added value and what challenges should organizations using advocacy as a drive for change in the digital age be prepared for?

  1. The advocacy revolution through digital communication

By definition, advocacy is the process of endorsing a specific cause for common interests; for the improvement of the living conditions and well-being of disadvantaged groups, or the protection of entities that cannot defend themselves (some examples include endangered species, the environment, victims of armed conflict, etc.). Initially, advocacy campaigns were implemented by several means including the protest (a form of peaceful and sometimes violent activism), the mailing (letters or petitions) by mass mobilization, the direct questioning of decision-makers (business leaders, elected officials, media or other leaders depending on the cause).

In the digital age, social life and private life are organized around digital tools. The dematerialization of contents (books, records, press …) makes it possible to share products and information at a low cost and in an unlimited way. Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Instagram in particular, are ways to communicate and create links on the internet. Appearing in the United States in 1995, social networks have experienced a massive development since 2005 and have revolutionized the organization of public space in Africa since 2010. This state of play has clearly influenced the approach of advocacy campaigns, any cause confused, making them more open and much more buoyant thanks to the massive level of pressure exerted on social networks. Several facts are observed:

  • The presence of world leaders on networks like Twitter facilitates interactions between advocacy group delegates and their targets, no matter where they are in the world. The only need is an internet connection.
  • Platforms like Google Hangouts, Skype or even Whatsapp allow massive participation of people in exchanges, while increasing the pressure on decision makers. These same platforms can facilitate verbal exchanges with decision-makers without the need for a physical meeting, which naturally turns out to be more restrictive.
  • Facebook Live also allows the setting up of direct exchanges with the sympathizers of a given campaign, and to collect the opinions of the ones and the others.
  • Twitter gives the opportunity to conduct an opinion poll quickly and efficiently, without compelling users to fill out the developed and sometimes a little long forms. Predisposing answers with a single click, the Twitter tool ensures high participation rate and 24h polls, if the initiating page has a maximum of “Followers“. If not, Retweets are more in the service of the mass distribution of a survey launched.
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WHS, Istanbul, 2016

More concretely, to use the example of the World Humanitarian Summit, the digital advocacy approach brought together actors from other parts of the world who, not knowing each other at all, were able to organize themselves in a digital space, more specifically Facebook and Tweeter, to achieve a common goal: mobilizing and sensitizing stakeholders on the humanitarian cause championed by the Summit. Their action paid off, given the participation rate. The most important moments of the summit (plenary, round tables, panels) were broadcast live on United Nations’ social media accounts, so that even in this moment of historic decisions for the future of Humanitarian Action, no one is left behind. It is through these same digital tools that the Agenda for Humanity has experienced the public consultation prior to its official adoption, and the commitments of people and organizations of all kinds to ensure its implementation in the allotted time. As much to say, a virtual community of stakeholders and advocates of the Agenda for Humanity was created through these digital media.

The only downside is, the community remains kept for those who have access to these tools and can use them in consciously. Those who do not have them or do not know how to use them are left behind, which is a big hindrance to the effectiveness of advocacy campaigns, even in the digital age.

  1. Impediments to the effectiveness of advocacy as a vehicle for change in the digital age

It goes without saying that, limits of modern digital tools can be bridged by traditional tools; it remains obvious that the two approaches, even if combined, are not enough to ensure inclusive participation and to make all voices heard. That said, people who cannot participate freely in a campaign because they are limited in their access to accurate tools, are, in absolute terms, deprived of their freedom of expression being reduced to traditional approaches.

Several current facts explain this:

  • Populations still living in extreme poverty simply do not have access to digital technology requiring a minimal living comfort (smartphone, iPad, computer, smartwatch, electronic bracelets, digital TV screen). In 2015, the UN estimates that 735.9 million people in the world live in extreme poverty, just over 10% of the world’s population, almost half of them in sub-Saharan Africa (41.1%) (Source: Poverty and Shared Prosperity 2018: Piecing Together the Poverty Puzzle.).
  • The corollary of this poverty is naturally the low rate of schooling. According to the authors of UNESCO’s Global Monitoring Report on Education for All 2015, “The poorest children are four times less likely to attend school than the richest children and the probability that they do not complete primary education is five times higher”. As a matter of fact, 61.3 million children have no access to primary school in the world and 32.5 million out-of-school children live in sub-Saharan Africa. These limits in education do not favour the knowledge and use of digital technology.
  • In terms of infrastructure, the number of internet users remains limited in Africa and the Global South in general. According to the new 2018 Global Digital Follow-Up from We Are Social and Hootsuite, Internet penetration rates still low from much of Central Africa and Southern Asia, even if these regions are also the fastest growth in internet adoption. In general, the Global South could not reach 50% penetration in January 2018; Central Africa had the lowest Internet penetration rate (12%), followed by Southern Africa (27%), South Asia (36%), West Africa (39%), the Caribbean (48%) and North Africa (49%).
  • Considering human rights and freedoms, including freedom of expression, much remains to be done to limit the internet shutdowns by governments. The Annual Report on the State of Internet Freedom in Africa 2017 issued in June 2018 by the African Freedom of Expression Exchange presents a dozen countries liberticides for Internet in Africa. The major incidents of online violations / developments listed are Criminalizing Speech (Arrests / Detention / Sentencing), Online harassment, Censorship / Shutdowns, Surveillance, Engendering online rights / Civil Society Efforts.

As a result, even if digital access was assured, not everyone has the freedom to use it anytime, anywhere. Governments limit access to the internet for purely political reasons, a process of muzzling people and limiting their fundamental rights.

  1. How to overcome these obstacles make advocacy campaigns more effective through digital

Finally, there is an urgent need to promote digital inclusion as a way to leave no one behind: (i) identifying barriers to community engagement that can be overcome, (ii) focussing on inclusion and accessibility to fill gaps, and (iii) activating existing channels of engagement for everyone.

Therefore, a digital inclusion’s activation process involves:

  • Digital literacy or improving knowledge on the digital technology’s stakes;
  • The provision of digital infrastructures and services to facilitate access to disadvantaged people;
  • Increasing Internet penetration and reducing related costs, in particular to make it affordable to all;
  • The fight for human rights, and mainly digital rights, Freedom of expression, Internet Freedom.

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