CSocD59: The First Virtual Civil Society Forum (CSF)

Blog by Allie Liu, SI Communications & Advocacy Assistant.

As the 59th Session of the Commission of Social Development (CSocD59) commenced at the United Nations (UN) Headquarters in New York, the Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) Committee on CSocD held the first virtual Civil Society Forum (CSF). Along with opening and closing sessions, NGO CSocD organised three daily thematic sessions between 9-11 February 2021.

The virtual meetings saw participation from all over the world, including attendees from France, Argentina, Kenya, India, Indonesia and many more countries, who were able to say hello to each other via the chat function on Zoom, later serving to be a great space for lively discussion and interaction with the panellists.

Thematic Session 1: Digital Inclusion in Education and Social Protection for All

SI United Nations Representative and co-chair of NGO CSocD, Maria Fornella-Oehninger introduced the first webinar, before handing over to the session’s moderator, Houry Geudelekian, NGO CSW chairwoman. Geudelekian led the discussion on how digital technologies can both promote and interrupt progression made towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by posing brilliant questions for the panellists to delve into.

Screenshot from Thematic Session 1. Speakers clockwise from top left: Houry Geudelekian, Christiaan Van Veen, Germán Rueda, Nayla Zreik Fahed, Rachel Cooper.

Rachel Cooper of UNICEF centred her talk on not just the importance of education, but having “world class” education accessible for all. She stated: “Education is the great equaliser, if it’s properly resourced and financed”, highlighting the need for NGOs and other groups to work together to provide high-quality education for children, with an emphasis on girls. Nayla Zreik Fahed of ed-tech NGO, Lebanese Alternative Learning, added that we mustn’t forget the importance of both online and offline quality education with a special effort to reach those children who live in remote or rural areas.

Christiaan Van Veen, Director at Digital Welfare State and Human Rights Project at NYU, offered a nuanced viewpoint on the growing global digitalisation, stating that he was “sceptical about technologic-centric thinking.” He pointed out that without proper infrastructure and government support, technology can reinforce existing inequalities and may not be the “clean fix” for social problems. Colombia’s Vice Minister of Digital Transformation, Germán Rueda, came to the discussion from a governmental perspective, sharing Colombia’s approach to encourage the ethical growth of digital and creative technology fields. He and the other panellists stressed the importance of including private sector, academics, civil society in the discussion surrounding digital technologies to ensure everyone is connected and that no-one is left behind. The panellists agreed that technology solutions have to be flexible, inclusive, and transparent in order to achieve the SDGs.

Two interactive polls were posed to the audience at the end of the discussion, and attendees were able to have their say.

Thematic Session 2: Digital Technology and Financing for Development: Eradication of Poverty and Promotion of Equality at Global and National Levels

The second session was moderated by Stefano Prato, Managing Director of Society for International Development (SID), and the discussion centred around four key areas in addressing poverty reduction and digital technologies: connectivity, inclusivity, affordability, and accountability. With the three panellists having worked extensively in the Global South, they agreed that a multistakeholder approach (including government, private sector, civil society, and local communities) is essential to implementing digital technologies in the most effective and responsible way to eradicate poverty. At the same time, the panel suggested that education was key to plug the skills gap, particularly with women and girls, so that truly everyone is included in our digital world.

Screenshot from Thematic Session 2. Speakers clockwise from top left: Shantanu Mukherjee, Stefano Prato, Hamzat Lawal, Sonia Jorge.

Hamzat Lawal, CEO at Follow the Money and Connect Development, having worked across over 40 African countries, talked of “creating an enabling environment” that promotes financial inclusion through technology. He emphasised the power of the internet to give individuals an opportunity to have their voices heard. Sonia Jorge of the Alliance for Affordable Internet and UNDESA’s Shantanu Mukherjee both spoke of the importance of government regulation and the protection of the user’s privacy and human rights. Mukherjee warned against the “concentration of monopoly power” in reference to big networks that might stifle the open source community’s innovation and already disadvantaged groups’ accessibility. Sonia also pointed out the importance of having safe spaces for women and girls to access digital platforms in and outside the home.

Again, the discussion finished with two interesting polls where the the virtual attendees could participate.

Thematic Session 3: Digital Technology and Good Governance: Creating a Legal Environment that Protects Human Rights, Respects Privacy, and Prevents Abuses

In the third and final thematic session of CSF, moderator Anita Gurumurthy of IT for Change, led the discussion on good governance and asked the panellists to share their thoughts on how technology and participatory democracy can – and should – work together.

Screenshot from Thematic Session 3. Speakers clockwise from top left: Anita Gurumurthy, Gert Auväärt, Wietse Van Ransbeeck, Emeline Siale Ilolahia, Leah Dienger.

Representative of Estonia to the UN, Gert Auväärt and Leah Dienger from IBM, were optimistic about the opportunities and potential for change digital technologies can create; at the same time, they stressed the importance of including the end user throughout the design stages, transparency in data collection and processes, and improving people’s technological skills through training. Wietse Van Ransbeeck, CEO of Citizen Lab, added that in order for citizens to feel like their voices are being heard and will effect change, there needs to be consistent communication through feedback loops with government.

Emeline Siale Ilolahia, of the Pacific Islands Association of NGOs, offered her perspective on some of the challenges faced when trying to roll out digital technology solutions in the region. To combat cultural resistance to new technologies, poor infrastructure and affordability issues, Ilolahia suggests a people-centred approach, firmly grounded on human rights, is needed for good governance. The panellists agreed that we need to work harder to build trust between governing powers and citizens; we have to ensure there are better frameworks so that technological progression and democratic participation can work in tandem. The final polls also suggest that the virtual audience was in agreement that good global governance is paramount to ensure the effectiveness, sustainability, and fairness of our ever-increasingly digital world.

Gurumurthy closed the final webinar with a poignant reminder that good governance is an absolutely essential companion to the unstoppable digitalisation of the world, reminding us that “democracy was not built on an app.”

To read more about Digital Technology, please head to our CSocD59 blogs.

Find out more about the Civil Society Forum by clicking HERE.

Read the NGO CSocD Civil Society Declaration in English, French, and Spanish.

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