Nanjala Nyabola: COVID-19 and Africa: Techno-solutions won’t save us from the problems we face

In this interview, Dr. Folashadé Soulé and Dr. Camilla Toulmin discuss with Nanjala Nyabola, a writer and researcher based in Nairobi, Kenya. Nanjala’s work focuses on the intersection between technology, media, and society. She is currently the Director of Advox, the digital rights programme at Global Voices. Nanjala has held numerous research associate positions including with the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), the Oxford Internet Institute (OII), and other institutions, while also working as a research lead for several projects on human rights broadly and digital rights specifically around the world.

Starting with a general question - how, in your view, is the COVID-19 pandemic affecting digital transformation in Africa?

I have never been a big champion of the idea of “digital transformation”. We always try to push back some of the more uncomfortable questions and create a utopian view of technology, when the lived experience of many countries shows that it’s a little bit more complicated than that. Trying to skip over complicated social and political questions does ourselves a disservice. And for me, the idea of digital transformation puts too much emphasis on the capacity of technology to change our society and neglects our own agency in doing this ourselves. Like all crises, I would say that COVID-19 has presented both challenges and opportunities. The challenges are obvious: the healthcare systems are stressed, public health in many African countries is struggling, there is a rising death rate, heavy costs to the economy from all the lockdowns, and rising inequality which has become really apparent. The challenges are all around us, but the opportunities have also been interesting. African countries are now thinking concretely about manufacturing and distributing vaccines, with the technology and investments that spin-off from this. They’ve been looking at new ways of managing travel and mobility, progress has been made on the Africa free trade agreement, as has work on the African passport, and systems for monitoring travel.

I am encouraged that despite the challenges we’re facing, which are truly once in a generation - a “make or break” moment for humanity - that there’s still a lot of positive energy. It’s remarkable that there’s a lot of impetus to think beyond the crisis, and to ask: how can we use technology and innovation to build back stronger and more creatively? I’ve always maintained that digital is part of a larger tapestry of measures. It’s not something to be thought of out of context, but within the context of the societies experiencing these challenges. One thing that’s become apparent is that a lot of countries spent large parts of their budgets on shifting towards tech-based solutions, when that money would have been better spent paying doctors and nurses. In Kenya, the government promised a laptop per child, and that didn’t happen. And so when the children stayed at home when schools got closed during the pandemic, they didn’t have any way of staying updated with schools. At the same time, it was remarkable to have gone from no African country being able to test for COVID in January 2020 to every single African country being able to test for COVID three months later. The real challenge now is going to be how to stay focused on the priorities. How do we avoid the attractions of tech solutions derailing us from the really deep structural issues that also need our attention?

Does this pandemic represent an opportunity for African governments to rethink the role of innovation, technology and digitalisation in their countries’ development models?

Absolutely. Again, we’ve been reminded to set clear priorities. WE shouldn’t focus on technology for its own sake, it has to be embedded in the broader demands for justice, equality, service delivery, and respect, all of which make society function. We’ve been reminded that even if you build the most sophisticated app, if you’re not building it with normal human beings in mind, it’s not going to help you with the core questions you seek to address. At the same time, there has been remarkable innovation - take Kenya, where the vaccine tracking system is entirely digital, and decentralized. Every vaccination centre contributes to building the database, and people get the vaccination record on their phone. Now, granted there aren’t that many people in Kenya, or Africa as a whole, who’ve been vaccinated - only 500,000 to 600,000 so far (at the time of interview) - but it’s a good example of building technology in context. Mobile phones are the primary way through which most people in Kenya access the internet, so having that record on your phone is actually incredibly helpful and enables the person to travel around the country and wider region with relative ease. It’s focused on a simple solution, rather than an elaborate form of digital ID that would have required a much more expensive infrastructure. That’s the kind of tech we want to see. It’s not about taking the most beautiful platform and throwing a lot of money at it. It’s about building a system that works best for the people, and meshes with their needs, their capacities, and also with the financial capacity of the country. We don’t want to spend more on the vaccine tracking system than on buying vaccines.

These are the tough questions a lot of poor countries, not just in Africa but around the world, have to consider, and then order their priorities and spend accordingly. There are many encouraging signs that the message is getting through and the right balance being reached. Techno solutions are not going to save us from the bigger problems we face, like lack of access to vaccines in the face of this pandemic. It’s not just about tech, but goes back to the fundamentals of human beings and society, getting treatment to sick people and protecting them from illness.

Have you also observed a specific gendered effect on digital access since the beginning of the pandemic?

For sure. Gender disparities have been embedded in the way tech is rolled out. Again, this is not a uniquely African problem, but is found in many societies. A GSMA report found that women were 20% less likely than men to use the internet, and while that is a reduction from the 28% of the previous year, it’s still a gap. The same report found that South Asia has the biggest gender disparity at 51%, but it is a huge problem in a lot of countries because of the way that societies are structured and what technology represents. The majority of people in poor countries connect to the internet through their mobile phones, which represent a luxury item or an essential business tool. Within the family, young women and girls are the least likely to have access to a mobile phone and therefore by extension to the internet. So young women faced a big problem by losing access to education during the lockdowns, when schools were shut, and had no access to the internet either. In a number of African countries there has been a spike in teenage pregnancies triggered by conditions during the pandemic, representing a major loss of educational opportunity for young women.

I keep saying that the pandemic represents a generational shock or crisis, which will determine what the next 100 years look like. If young women get locked out of this big shift - when we’re moving to a digital first system, for tax payments, ID systems, driver’s licence, everything - then we’re setting back young women by a generation or more. It’s definitely a concern in many countries and why it’s so important to have sociologists and anthropologists who examine these inequalities. These are not things that technology is going to fix. Rather, we have to understand our societies in order to make sure that our responses reflect the realities of how our societies are structured.

Do you think that the exercise of digital rights has been even more restricted and challenged with the ongoing pandemic in Africa?

There has been an effort to undermine the right to privacy, which is a cornerstone of digital rights. The process of building digital passports and a digital vaccine system has been based on tracking people, finding out where they’re going and who they’re meeting up with. In Singapore, even though there was a promise that tracking data would be private, it ended up not being private and the data that was being collected was handed over to the police. Some countries are using tracking data to control migration, which is a clear violation of digital rights. The pandemic requires good policy in the short, medium and long term. For governments and for policy makers in government, the challenge with digital rights is how to balance short term gains with the long-term risk; but violating digital privacy and digital rights in the short term with the idea that we will recover them in 20 years, in 30 years is not realistic. It doesn’t work.

It’s much easier to give rights away than to get them back. There has been a constant push and pull, and an overreach in many countries, in which a desire to expand surveillance, constrain privacy, and track people’s movement has become a real threat. In a lot of African countries, we’ve been saved from this because surveillance kit is expensive, and governments have suffered a big fall in revenue from the lockdowns, economic hits, and falling tourism. That’s really the buffer that has been keeping people safe for now, but it might not always be this way, and the pandemic isn’t over yet.

I was also thinking of some governments, the latest being Nigeria, for instance, cutting digital access to certain platforms and social networks. Do you have the impression that governments are increasingly seeking to control digital access by their citizens, using the pandemic as cover?

This tendency was already coalescing before the pandemic. Tanzania was the latest one. But in 2021, Nigeria has banned Twitter, Uganda shut down social media for three weeks, Tanzania shut it for six weeks, and Chad had a shutdown around the death of the president. Nigeria is so far the biggest to have done it, in terms of population size and the economy. But it’s definitely a growing trend amongst governments over recent years, to stop people from criticizing them, and pushing back against the official online narratives. This executive overreach through shutting digital platforms down is going to continue; it fits into the broader expansion of authoritarianism around the world. Governments are less tolerant of criticism and more excessive in the way that they respond to criticism. For instance, Belarus diverted a commercial plane in order to arrest a journalist and his girlfriend; people in Hong Kong are sent to jail for many years for protesting, it’s part of a broader picture in which authoritarian patterns are growing. African countries are no exception to this rule, but they could choose to be an exception by providing more democratic responses.

COVID represents a really major opportunity to decide what the next 50 or a hundred years could look like. If states succumb to the authoritarian impulse and push the line ‘we don’t want to hear any criticism’, ‘we don’t want to hear any pushback’, then unfortunately the next 50 years will be characterized by a silencing of civilians and critics of the state. It’s part of a broader issue that the pandemic makes more complex and urgent.

As they say, a crisis should never go to waste. What do you think are the two or three key shifts in regulation that are required, not only at the national but also at the sub-regional level such as ECOWAS, and continent-wide? How might new regulations re-shape the digital economy for the next 10 to 15 years and lead to a more inclusive digital transformation?

I’ve been listening into a lot of the digital policy conversations taking place at the African Union. And I think that our policy makers, at regional level, still assume that they need only deal directly with governments, and hence they ignore citizens. The interest in preserving the integrity of states has unfortunately outweighed the interest in preserving the dignity and safety of Africa’s people, so we have lost the right priorities and balance. The conversations about digital policy focus on regulation, cyber security, and computer security, a series of threats, rather than looking at rights, dignity and inclusivity. The people who work on digital rights in Africa have been exclusively in civil society, operating outside the state. We need governments in Africa to start seeing digital rights as their responsibility, one of the state’s obligations. This would imply stopping the view of civil society as part of the opposition, but instead one of the pillars of governance and society. We were in meetings last month with government where we asked ourselves – when at any point did you consult civil society, and the digital rights activists who have been working on these issues for the last 10 years? Lack of any consultation by government means that policy ends up tilting power in favour of government, instead of the people.

Let’s engage in dialogue and conversation with civil society, which has been working on these issues. Let’s put the African citizen at the centre of our policymaking rather than the African state. The state might not exist in its current form in future years; the structure of states changes all the time. South Sudan only became independent in 2011. If we privilege the survival and strengthening of the state, over the protection of the citizen, we end up creating opportunities for harm. We end up creating policies that say it doesn’t matter that X number of people, of minorities lose their lives or lose their access to services, because the cybersecurity of the state is guaranteed and that’s more important. In Kenya, for example, some argue that it doesn’t matter if some Somali people are not able to get ID cards, because it’s about the security of the government. As a result, many Somali people from Kenya have a really hard time getting basic services, and access to bank accounts. That is same with the Nubian people in Kenya. These are the tensions that we have to be honest about. And I think we could navigate them by having an honest conversation about how civil society could be part of the policy making process in which the individual and the rights of the individual are placed firmly at the centre.

Nanjala Nyabola is also a founding member of the Africa Digital Rights Network (ADRN) and a fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI), the Digital Forensic Lab at the Atlantic Council, The Centre for Intellectual Property and Information Technology (CIPIT) at Strathmore University, and the Centre for Human Rights and Global Justice (CHRGJ) at NYU. She has published in several academic journals including the African Security Review and The Women’s Studies Quarterly, and contributed to numerous edited collections. Nyabola also writes commentary for publications like The Nation, Al Jazeera, The Boston Review and others. She is the author of Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics: How the Internet Era is Transforming Politics in Kenya (Zed Books, 2018) and Travelling While Black: Essays Inspired by a Life on the Move (Hurst Books, 2020).

About the COVID-19 and Africa series: a series of conversations conducted by Dr. Folashadé Soulé and Dr. Camilla Toulmin with African/Africa-based economists and development experts about their perspectives on economic transformation and how the COVID situation re-shapes the options and pathways for Africa’s development - in support of INET’s Commission on Global Economic Transformation (CGET)

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