Would you rather lead us into famine response in South Sudan, or into the jungle of digitalisation? This hypothetical question to international civil society leaders (CEOs and Chairs) was looming over last week’s annual retreat organised by the Centre, and the active attendance confirmed their courage and curiosity to engage in uncovering what this megatrend means, not just for civil society organisations, but also to their top brass.
Getting an understanding of what digitalisation means for our sector is always a good starting point. In most recent surveys, the high level of importance of digitalisation for our work is coupled with an extremely low readiness to understand and embrace this development.
You get, however, very quickly that this is not something that one can ‘compartmentalise’, or delegate down to the Chief Information Officer or the Head of IT. Every aspect of our work, from fundraising and communications to better participation in program decisions, and finding new solutions to problems of poverty, marginalisation and environmental issues, can ideally benefit from digital tools, and requires a basic understanding at the level of decision makers.
At the same time, the threats and challenges are growing exponentially. Data privacy and protection are particularly important, as we are experiencing restrictions on civic space, and the instrumentalisation of big and small data for commercial and political purposes. The dangers of a new ‘digital divide’ are real: Economic and social inequalities can be exacerbated if access to the internet, to digital tools and knowledge, are not provided to the bottom billion. In fact, big digital companies are looking for the ‘next billion’ clients in a mostly unregulated environment, and the civil society sector should be frontline in making sure this ambition helps to connect the most marginalised (and protect them from becoming mere customers or data providers). And all of our intervention programs should include systematic use and build digital capacities and knowledge with the people we serve.
Putting people at the centre of digital strategies became the overriding theme in our discussions. Rather than chasing new technologies as part of the latest hype cycle, we need to put our mission first, discover what people need and can use, and determine our engagement in digital technology accordingly. The excitement about new solutions (on participation, communication, technology) vs. the fear of data misuse, inequality of access, and things getting out of hand are the extreme sides of our spectrum of engagement. Connecting opportunities and challenges of digitalisation back to our mission will have to be the overriding ambition of any strategic involvement.
In particular, the digital cultures of ICSOs need to be strengthened – including deeper understanding, analysis, and comfort on usage. This will then help us engage more systematically in the main areas of action – strategy, organisational processes, communication and fundraising, and technology and data. Above all, the ambition of ‘digital for good’ and ‘do no harm’ should guide us, as we strive to make a difference to the most marginalised and oppressed, and maintain legitimacy, effectiveness and impact in the future.