Philanthropy, Technology and Democracy in Nigeria

Philanthropy, Technology and Democracy in Nigeria

By John Palfrey

Before coming to the MacArthur Foundation as its sixth president in 2019, I spent much of my career studying and advocating for the use of technology to promote democracy and good governance around the world. I’m excited by the opportunities of a world in which technology strengthens democracy—though I have real fears about what technology can do in the hands of tyrants, as we are seeing in Europe today. And I feel enormously grateful to have a chance to talk about how my colleagues and I are working alongside all of you to ensure that peoples’ voices around the world, and especially here in Nigeria, are heard in the halls of power.

To that end, I’d like to focus on what philanthropy can do to be more effective partners in strengthening democracy through civic technology and supporting the organizations, practices, and leaders to meet those needs. I’ll talk about the urgent challenges in front of us now, and what we are doing at MacArthur to model the changes we want to see in the way our sector operates. 

Our mission at the MacArthur Foundation is to build a more just, verdant, and peaceful world. We have strived toward that goal for more than forty years. And I’m proud to say that, since our founding, we have been a stalwart champion of people and organizations that never stopped believing that the arc of the moral universe CAN bend toward justice. 

MacArthur is known the world over for its Fellows program, now in its fifth decade of honoring exceptionally creative individuals. I would highlight the fellowship we awarded to the notable Nigerian, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Equally important, our grantmaking in the areas of peace, justice, the environment, and journalism and media have supported effective institutions and influential networks around the world with grants in the billions of dollars since 1978.

The Foundation has been working in Nigeria for more than 30 years in a variety of fields, including population and reproductive health, higher education, girls’ secondary education, criminal justice, and human rights. In 1994, we opened an office in Ibadanand moved to Abuja in 2000, led by Dr. Kole Shettima, esteemed and indefatigable Director of our Africa office and his wonderful team of Staff members.

Of course, the world is a vastly different place than when MacArthur Foundation first started making grants and partnering with the Yar’Adua Centre and others. We need to recognize the ways the context has changed, and together imagine a better future. Today I focus on the effects of seismic changes in technology and how all of us—most certainly our young people—get our news and information, interact with the health care system, get jobs, and participate in civic life.

The internet, social media, and our mobile phones have completely transformed communications and touched virtually every aspect of life. Information—and disinformation—is more readily accessible than ever before in human history. All these technological developments have implications for democracy and for interaction between citizens and people in power.

And yet, in 2021, so much remains unchanged. So many massive problems remain to be solved. Some problems are so entrenched that they are woven into the fabric of our shared experience. . . poverty. . . inequality. . . climate change. . . corruption. These things are true in Nigeria as well as in the United States and India where we also have offices.

It’s no secret that these challenges disproportionately affect people who are already among the most marginalized. . . And that is the hard truth behind why these problems still exist. Corruption destroys countries and impoverishes people. A thriving Nigeria—with its rich natural resources, young and growing population, and continental leadership—is one of the most important goals for the world today.

Our work in Nigeria focuses on reducing corruption by supporting Nigerian-led efforts to promote an atmosphere of accountability, transparency, and good governance. We are driving improvements in the criminal justice system, bolstering independent media and journalism, supporting a diverse and vibrant civil society, and promoting behavior change to show that progress is possible.

With our grantee partners, our work also intends to further gender equity and social inclusion as it advances the larger anti-corruption goal. Those who are most marginalized feel the brunt of corruption’s consequences. So, we strive to be attentive to issues across gender, generation, geography, ability, faith, and ethnicity.

Increasingly, the use of technology has become an important, if not indispensable, tool towards improving the governance landscape in Nigeria. Technology enables residents to connect directly with government and enhances the delivery of essential services. Technology also has the potential to advance transparency, accountability, and democratic principles, amplifying the voice of the people.

I applaud the Independent National Electoral Commission (INES) for introducing an array of digital technologies in Nigeria since 2011 to minimize electoral fraud and to boost the credibility of elections. These include biometric voter registration to ensure one person, one vote; smart card readers for the accreditation of voters; improved safety and security, and more. The Electoral Act of 2022, recently signed into law by President Muhammadu Buhari, is a step in the right direction, with major provisions including early release of funds to INEC, early commencement of campaigns, and the ability for INEC to determine whether results can be transmitted electronically. And recently, with our support, INEC established an office on Gender and Social Inclusion and appointed a new Director whose job it is to ensure that more women and people with disabilities can easily participate in elections.

Globally, civil society organizations are using different tools and technologies—adapted for the local context—to advocate and campaign for change, make data-driven decisions, and track and monitor the impact of their work. We supported these collaborative efforts over the last 10 years, with the Yar’Adua Foundation playing a key role. Looking back, we are proud to say that these efforts have enhanced the credibility of elections and improved—even saved—lives.

In 2009, I was a professor at Harvard Law School and a director of a research center, now called the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. MacArthur’s journey in this space here in Nigeria began around this time. MacArthur made a grant in 2009 to the Berkman Klein Center to organize a meeting on information and communications technology, or “ICT for Development” in Abuja. Many MacArthur grantees participated—from our Population and Reproductive Health program, the Higher Education Initiative, and the Human Rights program.

Most organizations were focused on previous elections which were chaotic and disorganized, and noted the many ways technology could be leveraged to improve their work. Following their lead, we began to focus more attention on the use of technology in the electoral process.

Also in 2009, MacArthur awarded grants to Yar’Adua Foundation in partnership with Georgia Tech University to lead the development and deployment of a social media aggregator for citizen election observers, known as Aggie. Yar’Adua Foundation managed this platform with support from Georgia Tech. Observers used the platform to mine social media posts for election incidents which were then flagged and escalated to the relevant authorities. The grant also supported INEC to significantly improve its transparency and voter engagement through social media channels.

As you recall, the 2011 general elections precipitated some of the worst post-election violence in Nigeria. Approximately 1,000 people died, 80 percent of whom lived in Kaduna State. The number of casualties could have been significantly higher if not for the timely intervention of security agencies. One such intervention was prompted by the Aggie team: many female students of the Nuhu Bamalli Polytechnic in Zaria, Kaduna State were rescued when news of an attack on their hostel was escalated through Aggie to the Office of the National Security Advisor, who immediately deployed a response team. Thanks to this technological collaboration, lives were saved.

In preparation for the 2015 elections, we built on the previous work with support for the Yar’Adua Foundation as it upgraded Aggie to a Content Aggregation System for Elections. This allowed it to retrieve more than 2.6 million micro-reports from social media and over 11,000 formal reports from registered observers.

While digital technologies like smart card readers are imperfect, in the 2015 and 2019 elections, they have played an important role in reducing electoral fraud, increasing transparency, and paving the way toward free, fair, and legitimate elections. At the same time, we know that there are inherent limitations and drawbacks to technology: privacy and security concerns; a lack of contingency plans for malfunctioning technologies and delays; inadequate infrastructure and security; and limited training for staff at the polls; among other challenges.

We also know all too well that digital technologies can replicate and magnify discriminatory gender and power dynamics. Disinformation online can spread quickly, reduce the political and social agency of marginalized people, and lead to real-world violence. This is not unique to Nigeria but is true globally. As we see today in Russia, digital technologies can be used to mislead and misinform people in a time of crisis.

My own home country, the United States, is in a pitched and partisan battle over dis- and misinformation, voter protection, and election integrity as you may have read. We also operate in India, another of the world’s largest democracies, where we cannot take voter inclusion for granted, either.

Looking ahead to the next Nigerian election in 2023, now is the time to build on what we have learned over the last decade of this work both in Nigeria and elsewhere. The Yar’Adua Foundation, in collaboration with other MacArthur grantees, is leading the way through the Partners United Against Corruption platform, which provides access to vital tools and resources to enable accountability partners, residents, and civil society stakeholders to inspire collective action against corruption. In addition, we should work to enhance the ability for women, people with disabilities, and young people to get to the polls and do so safely. INEC’s new office on Gender and Social Inclusion is an important step in making this a reality.

I would like to speak as well about the extraordinary toll of the COVID-19 pandemic, which none of us could have foreseen. Technology has helped us stay connected in communities and social movements for equality around the world. But disinformation and inequality have also spread alongside the pandemic.

We must also acknowledge the disproportionate harm in marginalized communities. The twin pandemics of COVID-19 and racism and inequality are very much intertwined. They have led to an outsize impact on the physical and economic health of people living in the Global South, Indigenous populations, and people with unequal access to vaccines and medical care. And the unequal access to technology has excluded communities from economic and social opportunity.

At MacArthur and across the social sector, we confront this injustice with resolve, and I’m glad to have some of our philanthropic partners here today. While we have reason to be proud of the work we have done and the work our grantees have done, we cannot be satisfied with what we see around us in 2022.

In philanthropy, we have so much to learn as we organize our collective resources to meet the moment.As we work together to create a future where Nigerians can survive—and thrive—we must commit to a reimagining of what is possible. We must prioritize your vision, needs, and dreams. It is clear that we need new directions in philanthropy to respond to these urgent needs and to help realize the promise of this moment, to work for a more equitable and inclusive future.

Certainly, at MacArthur, we see the impact of technology across all of the Foundation’s grant making and work, and we use a mode of working called field support to shape it. The internet and related technologies are fundamentally reshaping how we communicate, share knowledge, and understand the world. Beneath that veneer of innovation is an old story about how power operates. Our Technology in the Public Interest program (we call it TPI) helps strengthen nonprofits working to ensure the social implications of artificial intelligence and other technologies are being addressed in an equitable way, and that human and civil rights are strengthened through better governance of digital technologies.

In 2015, MacArthur joined several foundations, including our frequent partners at Ford Foundation and Knight Foundation, to establish the NetGain Partnership, a philanthropic collaboration seeking to advance the public interest in the digital age. We know that the evolving landscape and ubiquitous power of technology demands the attention of philanthropic leaders to ensure that technology is built, used, and governed in a way that fosters opportunity.

Each year, we launch a new NetGain Challenge to focus on a topic that increases knowledge, collaboration, and our collective investment in the health of a vibrant internet and vibrant data space that serves the public interest.

A current focus of NetGain is the increasing power of digital platforms such as Facebook and YouTube and the need to address the harms that they can enable—while preserving the benefits of these extraordinary digital platforms. NetGain’s work advances policy conversations related to misinformation and disinformation, to establish greater coordination among researchers and advocates working to understand and mitigate the spread of mis- and disinformation, and to provide grants to people and organizations focused on this topic globally. 

To that end, earlier in 2021, NetGain awarded a grant in support of the work of pioneering Filipino-American journalist Maria Ressa, who is a Digital Fellow at MIT’s Initiative on the Digital Economy. Maria Ressa has faced ongoing attacks for her work to fight corruption in the Philippines and has been the target of disinformation campaigns. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to, and this is a quote, “…safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace.”

Supporting and lifting up people and organizations working to advance racial justice and civil rights is core to the Technology and Public Interest grant making, with a particular focus on the use and regulation of artificial intelligence. This can be risky work, but it is essential in shaping a more just and equitable future. Too often, people from historically marginalized communities are erased, face retaliation for their work to critically examine technology and its relationship to power and are not adequately supported for their contributions—and philanthropy can be an important counterweight to that.

A twentieth anniversary such as this one for Yar’Adua Foundation allows us a chance to celebrate—but also to reflect on what we’ve learned from the past two decades as we look ahead to the future. I think we have learned that people, networks, and institutions such as Yar’Adua Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, and our many grantees here in Nigeria can and do make a difference toward a more just, verdant, and peaceful world.

I believe we have learned that it is indeed possible to transform our systems, practices, and structures in fundamental ways—to imagine and then use everything we can to construct something better. I believe we have learned that technology CAN but does not necessarily play a role in supporting the public interest, in bringing about good governance, in making life-saving information available at the right moment, and in improving systems of education.

Based on these things that we have learned, we need to build and deploy technology that puts the public interest first, with equity and inclusion as a design principle, not an afterthought. We can and should imagine and build new digital and electoral infrastructure for the public good together and collaboratively, to tackle the root causes of corruption. This is the progress and leadership I’d love to see in Nigeria and globally.

Most important, I believe it is time for a new, dynamic, diverse, inspired group of young people to join us in this work. I have every confidence that these newcomers will help to build tomorrow’s Nigeria that will serve the many and not just the few.

I am excited to see what they will do to design, build, regulate, and remake structures and a system that badly needs it—in the interest of a more just and inclusive economy and our very democracy. And to each one of you who is leading this work today, I thank you for your incredible leadership. Keynote speech by the president, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, at the 20th anniversary of the Shehu Musa Yar’Adua Foundation in Abuja, Nigeria, on March 24, 202

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