Internet connectivity opens many opportunities for civil society groups and activists to participate in their countries’ political life, defend their rights and promote government transparency and accountability. However, much of the populations in developing countries remain unconnected and thus cannot fully participate in civic life. This was the focus of my intervention at the “Innovative Citizen Participation in Restrictive Environments” seminar, which I attended in Kuala Lumpur from 25-27 June 2019, representing APC and the project on local access and community networks of which I am part.
The event, which was organised by the EU-funded programme Supporting Democracy, in collaboration with the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL), was attended by over a hundred guests representing civil society groups from all over the world, especially from South and Southeast Asia. We discussed innovative approaches to democratic participation, including digital tools for election observation and accountability, new methods to overcome online and offline restrictions and social media monitoring methodologies.
Without internet connectivity, capabilities for active civil participation become limited, I stressed during the discussions. Unfortunately, it is mainly in developing countries that the majority of populations remain unconnected, particularly in countries with restrictive environments. Globally it is the “easy” half that has been connected to the world wide web. Providing access to the internet to the other half of the world’s population would be much harder due to several factors, such as the low purchasing power, difficult terrain and challenging climate conditions among others. The private sector is usually uninterested in investing in such areas and the governments of developing nations lack the resources to do the work. Fortunately, there is a way to get connectivity. The model is called community networks, a way of building internet networks by the local communities and for the communities. Such community networks are actively growing in the global South, including Latin America, Africa and Asia.
Organisations such as the Internet Society (ISOC) and the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) have been supportive of such initiatives. With support from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), APC’s project Connecting the Unconnected supports and strengthens community network movement across the global South. To continue this work, we need cooperation and collaboration in providing internet connectivity to the “first mile”, so I encouraged seminar participants to join us in supporting these efforts and we’ll continue to share the outcomes.