Blogpost by Allie Liu, Communications & Advocacy Assistant at Soroptimist International. The original post can be found here.

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 panelists.

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.”

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

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

Digital Technology and Social Welfare

The implications of technology on social welfare can often underscore the inequality, discrimination, and harm that sometimes comes with institutional structures and practices. For example, in India, the centralized database of its population, Aadhaar, was created to efficiently manage and transfer citizens’ money through their mobile phones. However, malpractice has arisen, showing how personal data was sold through the platform. Elsewhere, in Kenya, a widely-used mobile paying service called M-pesa, meant to facilitate mobile banking, demands high fees from users and allows foreign investors to profit from these fees, pushing the poorest users into a cycle of debt and poverty. These few examples just begin to scratch the surface of the ways in which the growing digital divide is separating our world and pushing the most vulnerable behind, as technology is very rapidly touching every aspect of our lives.  

Philip Alston speaking at a UN Headquarters conference 

Philip Alston, former UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, warned us about the dangers of “digital transformation” as being a mask for intrusive government surveillance, damages to welfare spending, and chances for private corporations to generate profits for their own interests. This further highlights the fact that a technologically-driven society must be guided by human rights in order to capture and prevent the emerging dangers of the digital welfare state. While there are numerous analyses and warnings of the dangers for human rights that are inevitable given our technologically-driven future, none of them have “adequately captured the full array of threats represented by the emergence of the digital welfare state.”  

In order to achieve global connectivity, we must come together to ensure that digital technology intersects with social welfare in safe, just, and equitable ways.

Furthermore, just recently this past June, the United Nations released the Secretary-General’s Roadmap for Digital Cooperation, highlighting the roadmap that all stakeholders must follow in order to close the digital divide and enhance a safe and more equitable digital world. One key area for action specifically emphasized that those who are the most vulnerable–migrants, refugees, internally displaced persons, older persons, young people, children, persons with disabilities, rural populations, and indigenous peoples–must be prioritized and protected from the detrimental effects of the digital divide through the coordination of initiatives, better metrics, and data collection. This roadmap provides key information on the need to provide all citizens and especially those who are most vulnerable with the proper skills and resources to succeed in the digital age as well as ensuring that their human rights are at the center of all regulatory frameworks and legislation. 

Overall, as we are living in an inevitable future of rapidly changing technology, the digital divide is ever increasing and it is up to us to strive towards universal connectivity not only technologically but for the benefit of society as a whole. Therefore, it is vital for governments to ground their actions, policies, and laws in the prioritization of human rights in terms of privacy, surveillance, data protection, capacity building, and more. 

COVID-19 and The Challenges of Remote Learning

During the current COVID-19 global pandemic, the digital divide between those who can and cannot afford the technological resources that greatly separate their potential feels wider now more than ever before. Devices such as tablets, laptops, mobile phones, and WiFi and Internet services are all resources that are vital to keep people connected in our digital world of today where we are all physically separated. These resources, however, are extremely expensive and as BBC reports, only 47% of people living on low income have access to broadband Internet at home. Library lockdowns further force students to have to complete long-term research and assignments on their small mobile devices if they cannot afford laptops and adequate writing devices, further forcing limits on their performance. For families who have to share the same devices, it has been extremely difficult to navigate and absorb information on mobile devices and balance their screen time with their other family members. 

Stacy White highlights the inequalities in education that the global pandemic is only further stretching.

Firstly, the most immediate impact of the pandemic on education has been students’ lack of accessibility to the Internet and its effects on their ability to participate in remote learning. Many students have feared the rush of adult responsibilities and stress that comes with the financial burdens that the pandemic has placed on multiple families through unemployment and illness. Without adequate technology, this creates a digital divide between those with access and resources and those who are entrapped in poverty and cannot afford the right tools to continue their education as successfully as their peers. 

Maryann Broxton emphasizes the hardships and lack of knowledge and training that parents are experiencing in the new world of remote learning.

Many students and teachers have recounted and spoken up about their personal challenges and their unique perspectives as those who are directly affected by remote learning. These challenges include weakened relationships with peers, feelings of isolation or lack of human connection, loss of motivation, distractions to learning due to family situations, and heightened mental health issues. Socio-economic status has also played a large role in teaching and learning disparities in different regions. In higher income areas, reports have shown that there are higher percentages of teachers still teaching during the pandemic, but in lower-income schools, significant truancy is high in schools experiencing high poverty. Almost ⅓ of students are not logging on or making contact with their remaining teachers in these schools. Furthermore, geographic regions play a role in the reach of remote learning where rural schools face challenges of poor connectivity, limited staff, and varying technical expertise and are left to solve these issues on their own. 

Overall, COVID-19 has brought numerous unprecedented challenges to remote learning, whether these be through tangible barriers such as lack of Internet and adequate technological devices or through transformations affecting people’s personal wellbeing and relationships with others as a whole. Ultimately, as ATD Fourth World in the UK states, the “…current crisis really highlights how easy it is to be excluded from the torrent of vital, well intentioned, but largely inaccessible help.” 

Explore the following sources from this blogpost and further links on the impacts of COVID-19 on education and remote learning:  





List of resources on digital technology and women’s rights from CSW64 and UN reports on digital government

CSW64 papers

UN reports

  • UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights Philip Alston’s Annual Report on the Digital Welfare State   https://undocs.org/en/A/74/493  

Digital technology and social well-being

Author:  Antara Basu

4th century BC, the incident of Draupadi’s vastraharan, imagine how differently the scene would have played out if 1091 existed. Or conjure 1945, Nazi Germany, imagine the armies of Twitter and Instagram staging an exposé and still finding the time, to retweet pictures of dogs in berets. 

Clearly technology would have altered the face of history. And though it didn’t, it can and is very well transforming the present and the future. From rural development to poverty alleviation to youth empowerment, technology is dominating every domain;

  1. Oroeco – Carbon Footprint Calculator: The app assists people to fight the climate crisis by measuring their carbon footprints through electricity consumption, transports, food and leisure activities. Additionally, it equips people with tips on how to reduce their carbon footprint to promote a more sustainable lifestyle. You can find it on Google Play Store as well.
  • Sustainability Aware: This app incorporates the appealing nature of games. It has compiled a collection of educational games to educate children in the age group of 8 to 12 years about sustainable living. It imparts basic lessons such as consequences and impacts of individual actions on the environment as well as advanced sustainability concepts such as renewable energy, climate change etc. 
  1. Feedie: The feeling of annoyance when you see someone clicking pictures of food when all you really want to do is dig in might actually turn out to be a good thing. When people upload pictures, participating restaurants donate money to The Lunchbox Fund. It’s a non-profit committed to feeding children living in poverty-stricken conditions. 
  • Freerice: It is a free online website and app which hosts an array of multiple-choice questions. The categories for which range from English grammar, vocabulary to geography and humanities. Freerice through the World Food Programme, donates rice for every question that an individual, answers correctly. Also available on Google Store.
  1. Meri SadakCreated under the umbrella of the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY), this app allows citizens to contribute in the development of infrastructure. This app supports a complaint and redressal mechanism and feedback can be reported to the Nodal departments in state governments, the National Rural Roads Development Agency [NRRDA]. This further enables the citizens to track the status of their issue after the submission of feedback. 
  •  GocoopAn online social marketplace that is dedicated to promoting craftsmanship, artisans and handicrafts. A winner of the first national award for handlooms marketing (eCommerce) by ministry of textiles, government of India, it a global platform that connects consumers with Indian artisans. Providing sustainable and stable livelihoods for India’s artistry community. 
  1. Women Fight Back: By focusing on problems that plagued their own communities Ansuja Madival created this app, as part of the Dharavi Diary project, which teaches underprivileged girls to code. With the aim of utilising technology to challenge the status quo. This app features a distress alarm and pre-selected emergency contact numbers in order to keep the user safe and to prevent violence.

The world today is continuously wrapping itself within digital binds and thereof the role of technology in social welfare is becoming increasingly diversified and complex. The same social networking sites designed for enhancing connectivity, today are actively advocating for global campaigns, movements and inspiring change. The use of digital technology for social wellbeing has achieved overwhelming progress. Innumerable applications and websites have proven to be indispensable tools to combat global challenges and develop a sustainable way of living and development, to facilitate the survival of our current and future generations.