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During 2020 APC worked towards empowering marginalised communities so that they could use and benefit from the internet during the pandemic. We helped create an enabling environment for community networks through global policy processes and supporting the development of national regulations. APC’s capacity building of community networks included the launch of a mentorship programme and supporting women working in community networks through subgrants.
Supporting community networks through policy and regulatory change
APC emphasised the importance of community networks in our participation in several global, regional and national discussions. These included moderating sessions at the regional and global Internet Governance Forums (IGFs), and co-convening a series of webinars on internet resiliency with the African Union Commission, African Telecommunications Union, ISOC and Mozilla.
APC’s most significant global contributions were made at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) on open telecom data, and at the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). We participated in a number of the crisis meetings at the ITU held in response to COVID-19, and made a submission to an ITU Council Working Group on expanding internet access. This addressed the role of government and non-government actors, the challenges faced by land-locked countries, and the role of small, community and non-profit networks. Submissions were also made to the World Telecommunication/ICT Policy Forum (WTPF), and to the ITU-D Study Group’s Questions 1 and 5, on strategies and policies for the deployment of broadband in developing countries, and telecommunications for rural and remote areas.
At the African Union Commission, APC convened a webinar series on community access. We curated and facilitated three workshops as part of this intervention, focusing on shared spectrum strategies for affordable access in rural areas, complementary access models, and the role of fibre optic backbone infrastructure.
We also took part in seven national public consultations on access in partnership with local organisations and international civil society organisations in Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Ethiopia, Kenya and South Africa. These consultations allowed us to share experiences from other jurisdictions with them.
APC led a consultancy commissioned by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), developing a report called “Community-led Connectivity: Assessing the potential of community network models in the context of forced displacement in East Africa”. It was published in May 2020 on the UNHCR website and republished on APC.org, with over 1,100 reads. The report forms the background material for an open call by the UNHCR for grants to pilot community networks in refugee camps and areas of forced displacement.
APC influenced global policy on open telecom data through participating in public consultations. Our advocacy pushed for affirmative wording on open telecom data to be included in the OECD broadband declaration, as well as in ITU documents, both of which were due to be finalised in 2021. We also contributed to the World Bank efforts to support the African Telecommunications Union’s implementation of recommendations on open telecom data.
Through an agreement with the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO), regulators in both Brazil (Anatel) and Kenya (Communications Authority of Kenya, CAK) received technical assistance from APC in creating an enabling policy for community networks as part of their response to the pandemic. We helped Anatel prepare a policy brief and a guide for the regulation of community networks, which it published on its website. We also compiled a resource of key documents on community networks for the regulator and supported the work of its supervisory group. APC assisted CAK in drafting its first community network licensing framework. This work with the regulators will continue into 2021.
APC published cross-country guideline recommendations for policy and regulations that enable local operators to fill the coverage gaps left by national internet service providers. By doing this we encouraged a practical understanding of the regulatory ecosystem necessary to help local operators offering internet access. The guidelines address key barriers faced by local operators, such as operator licensing, spectrum licensing and fees, backbone and backhaul infrastructure, financial support, and access to network information.
Helping women respond to the COVID-19 pandemic
APC’s response to COVID-19 included creating a Gender Discretionary Fund to strengthen the capacity of women working in community networks. The fund supported exploratory projects, including those focusing on combating gender-based violence. Four women-led collectives – in Brazil, Mexico and Kenya – benefited from the fund. Women working in their communities were then able to decide what was best for a local response to the pandemic. The projects covered issues relating to connectivity, developing community-driven content on their networks, and support for women experiencing gender-based violence.
APC hosted three women’s circles where women from community networks came together to discuss ways of navigating the negative consequences of the pandemic, including the increase in gender-based violence online. To complement this work we hosted a learning circle for men working in community networks around issues that prevent women in community networks from meeting their potential, and how men they can be allies in the struggle for gender rights.
We invited women who work in community networks to share their experiences of the pandemic through illustration and dialogues, offering a new creative way into expression and capturing oral history. These were published on GenderIT.org, and titled “Connected to care: Coronavirus and women's challenges in community networks”. You can read the story of how resilient women from Pamoja Net in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) engage with a health information chatbot here and a story inspired by interviews conducted with seven women who work with community networks in Colombia, Mexico, Argentina and Brazil here.
Building the capacity of community networks
During this period APC continued building the capacity of community networks through developing guidelines on participatory community network training, and through conducting training workshops and the launch of a mentorship programme in five target countries. We also convened online spaces where community network peers could learn how to develop, shape and use technologies to their benefit. In September, the team hosted a full week of learning, where we worked with 15 community network peer organisations to strengthen their internal capacity and move closer towards sustainability.
About 60 people gathered online for this event. APC’s guide, “Technological autonomy as a constellation of experiences: A guide to collective creation and development of training programmes for technical community promoters" was published in Spanish in 2020 and was to be formally launched in 2021 in English and Spanish. The guide is aimed at people and organisations that want to develop technological and communication training programmes in their communities and regions.
Jokkolabs Banjul enabled digital inclusion for rural women in Gambia
APC member Jokkolabs Banjul amplified the voices of rural women in Gambia ahead of the elections set for December 2021. This is the first election to take place in the country since the ouster of the country’s dictatorship in 2016. As Jokkolabs Banjul describes it, the political battle for votes is now happening in online forums created on WhatsApp. Its digital inclusion project, under the slogan “Digital inclusion: Not without our rural women”, has enabled women to appreciate the power of technology using WhatsApp, including creating voice recordings to share their political perspectives in communities.
Colnodo trained marginalised groups online, set up community networks and supported the environment in Colombia
APC member Colnodo conducted all of its usual face-to-face training online in 2020 due to the pandemic. This change impacted mostly on training women entrepreneurs, leaders in the territories in Colombia, peasants and young people. Colnodo also supported 10 civil society organisations in the implementation of their own online training processes. Because the intensive use of the internet during the pandemic increased digital risks, Colnodo assisted civil society organisations with digital security and the prevention of online violence. It continued supporting community networks that had been set up in Maní and in Buenos Aires (in Cauca). Community networks called Jxa’h Wejxia Casil (or “Wind Network”) were also set up in Caldono and Silvia. This initiative opened news spaces for dialogue, reconciliation and mutual recognition for Indigenous, peasant and former combatant communities. Thanks to an APC subgrant, it was also possible to strengthen the organisation’s Sustainable Development Network. This involved promoting a tree planting campaign for the recovery of the tropical forest and setting up a solar energy system in the Colnodo data centre that allowed a 65% reduction in energy consumption. In alliance with Nodo TAU, an APC member organisation in Argentina, a virtual ICT and Environment course was developed and offered, in which 182 people from seven countries were certified.