African governments are embracing the procurement of digital technology systems and the opportunities they present. The digital technology systems most African governments are adopting have the potential to transform governance and public services. Digital systems can increase access to government services, improve the quality of service, and save government money. Digital technologies also provide governments with new avenues to reach and engage citizens.
However, this is not without challenges, and while the continent of Africa has been touted as an engine of positive growth for the global economy, it is imperative that these new and exciting opportunities do not come at the expense of human rights. Although data collected by AFIC shows that most African countries have expressed interest in Digital technology systems (DTS) and that they are transforming governance in ways that could significantly improve the lives of citizens, particularly for the most marginalized, a closer look at these efforts shows that some African governments are using digital technology systems to implement changes that are limiting fundamental human rights. Examples include biometric registration for elections, which resulted in disenfranchisement of low-income groups; the use of mobile money transfers to pay fines and fees in court, which threaten due process; and the use of digital identity systems to limit free expression and association in social media, as well as civil rights in public spaces.
In Uganda, for example, there is a debate about whether access to basic services, such as birth certificates and national identity cards, should be based on a person’s ability to register for an electronic national identity card. While identity registration systems enable governments to deny benefits and services—as well as access to employment—to undocumented migrants, this approach potentially denies basic rights and citizenship to many people, including children. This not only violates individual rights but may also further entrench existing inequalities.
How? Two main approaches stand out:
Introducing unnecessary barriers to accessing information, such as by making requests excessively burdensome or refusing to respond to requests, and compromising the privacy of personal data. Digital technology systems are making it easier for government officials to decide and provide services to citizens. Digital technology is having a transformative impact on the management of public affairs in Africa as governments increasingly adopt new technology tools and systems to achieve reforms, reduce costs, and improve processes. The report analyzes key factors that affect how governments are using DTS to support human rights, including transparency, accountability, and citizen participation. We also offer strategies for using DTS to support human rights and increasing their positive effects on citizens’ lives.
Evidence shows that governments are using digital technology systems to deliver public services based on a transactional approach; an approach that focuses on specific services or transactions, rather than on citizens and communities being the starting point of service delivery. This approach has shifted the focus away from people, their aspirations and needs, and toward the government as service provider. One of the most striking examples is the collection and storage of biometric data by governments.
While technology is on the frontline of democratization, it is not a silver bullet on its own. The right to information is not a given; it is a right that has to be pursued and protected. Digital technology systems must promote, not limit, fundamental human rights, including the right to information and freedom of expression.
Therefore, in order to ensure human rights are protected, public processes for identifying specific digital technologies, and ensuring they will not undermine human rights, must be strengthened. And while we acknowledge some DTS serve the public good and that governments use them to reduce corruption, discrimination, or other abuses of power often carry risks for human rights, they should only be used when they will enhance human rights, considering civil society’s legitimate concerns.
AFIC recommends that:
- Respective national human rights institutions of Liberia, Nigeria and Uganda should prioritize promotion of human rights in DTSs starting with documenting and publishing reports on the state of surveillance in respective countries.
- Data protection laws and policies in respective countries should be enacted and strictly enforced to protect citizens from unwarranted manipulation for commercial and political advertising.
- Data holding public and private agencies should publish annual transparency reports regarding the release to third parties data collected using DTSs. Governments should also strengthen existing laws to ensure proper usage and protection of individual data that are collected through DTS. In line with this, the public should be sanitized on such laws so that in case of abuse they can seek justice.
- Data holding public and private agencies should publish annual transparency reports regarding the release to third parties data collected using DTSs.
- Civil society organizations should take interest and monitor the regulation and compliance of data holders the protection of personal information and privacy.