Social rights disrupted: how should human rights organizations adapt to digital government?

As the digitalization of government is accelerating worldwide, human rights organizations who have not historically engaged with questions surrounding digital technologies are beginning to grapple with these issues. This challenges these organizations to adapt both their substantive focus and working methods while remaining true to their values and ideals.

On September 29, 2021, Katelyn Cioffi and I hosted the seventh event in the Transformer States conversation series, which focuses on the human rights implications of the emerging digital state. We interviewed Salima Namusobya, Executive Director of the Initiative for Social and Economic Rights (ISER) in Uganda, about how socioeconomic rights organizations are having to adapt to respond to issues arising from the digitalization of government. In this blog post, I outline parts of the conversation. The event recording, transcript, and additional readings can be found below.

Questions surrounding digital technologies are often seen as issues for “digital rights” organizations, which generally focus on a privileged set of human rights issues such as privacy, data protection, free speech online, or cybersecurity. But, as governments everywhere enthusiastically adopt digital technologies to “transform” their operations and services, these developments are starting to be confronted by actors who have not historically engaged with the consequences of digitalization.

Digital government as a new “core issue”

The Initiative for Social and Economic Rights (ISER) in Uganda is one such human rights organization. Its mission is to improve respect, recognition, and accountability for social and economic rights in Uganda, focusing on the right to health, education, and social protection. It had never worked on government digitalization until recently.

But, through its work on social protection schemes, ISER was confronted with the implications of Uganda’s national digital ID program. While monitoring the implementation of the Senior Citizens grant in which persons over 80 years old receive cash grants, ISER staff frequently encountered people who were clearly over 80 but were not receiving grants. This program had been linked to Uganda’s national identification scheme, which holds individuals’ biographic and biometric information in a centralized electronic database called the National Identity Register and issues unique IDs to enrolled individuals. Many older persons had struggled to obtain IDs because their fingerprints could not be captured. Many other older persons had obtained national IDs, but the wrong birthdates were entered into the ID Register. In one instance, a man’s birthdate was wrong by nine years. In each case, the Senior Citizens grant was not paid to eligible beneficiaries because of faulty or missing data within the National Identity Register. Witnessing these significant exclusions led  ISER to become  actively involved in research and advocacy surrounding the digital ID. They partnered with CHRGJ’s Digital Welfare State team and Ugandan digital rights NGO Unwanted Witness, and the collective work culminated in a joint report. This has now become a “core issue” for ISER.

Key challenges

While moving into this area of work, ISER has faced some challenges. First, digitalization is spreading quickly across various government services. From the introduction of online education despite significant numbers of people having no access to electricity or the internet, to the delivery of COVID-19 relief via mobile money when only 71% of Ugandans own a mobile phone, exclusions are arising across multiple government initiatives. As technology-driven approaches are being rapidly adopted and new avenues of potential harm are continually materializing, organizations can find it difficult to keep up.

The widespread nature of these developments mean that organizations are finding themselves making the same argument again and again to different parts of government. It is often proclaimed that digitized identity registers will enable integration and interoperability across government, and that introducing technologies into governance “overcomes bureaucratic legacies, verticality and silos.” But ministries in Uganda remain fragmented and are each separately linking their services to the national ID. ISER must go to different ministries whenever new initiatives are announced to explain, yet again, the significant level of exclusion that using the National Identity Register entails. While fragmentation was a pre-existing problem, the rapid proliferation of initiatives across government is leaving organizations “firefighting.”

Second, organizations face an uphill battle in convincing the government to slow down in their deployment of technology. Government officials often see enormous potential in technologies for cracking down on security threats and political dissent. Digital surveillance is proliferating in Uganda, and the national ID contributes to this agenda by enabling the government to identify individuals. Where such technologies are presented as combating terrorism, advocating against them is a challenge.

Third, powerful actors are advocating the benefits of government digitalization. International agencies such as the World Bank are providing encouragement and technical assistance and are praising governments’ digitalization efforts. Salima noted that governments take this seriously, and if publications from these organizations are “not balanced enough to bring out the exclusionary impact of the digitalization, it becomes a problem.” Civil society faces an enormous challenge in countering overly-positive reports from influential organizations.

Lessons for human rights organizations

In light of these challenges, several key lessons arise for human rights organizations who are not used to working on technology-related problems but who are witnessing harmful impacts from digital government.

One important lesson is that organizations will need to adopt new and different methods in dealing with challenges arising from the rapid spread of digitalization; they should use “every tool available to them.” ISER is an advocacy organization which only uses litigation as a last resort. But when the Ugandan Ministry of Health announced that national ID would be required to access COVID-19 vaccinations, “time was of the essence”, in Salima’s words. Together with Unwanted Witness, it immediately launched litigation seeking an injunction, arguing that this would exclude millions, and the policy was reversed.

ISER’s working methods have changed in other ways. ISER is not a service provision charity. But, in seeing countless people unable to access services because they were unable to enroll in the ID Register, ISER felt obliged to provide direct assistance. Staff compiled lists of people without ID, provided legal services, and helped individuals to navigate enrolment. Advocacy organizations may find themselves taking on such roles to assist those who are left behind in the transition to digital government.

Another key lesson is that organizations have much to gain from sharing their experiences with practitioners who are working in different national contexts. ISER has been comparing its experiences and sharing successful advocacy approaches with Kenyan and Indian counterparts and has found “important parallels.”

Last, organizations must engage in active monitoring and documentation to create an evidence base which can credibly show how digital initiatives are, in practice, affecting some of the most vulnerable. As Salima noted, “without evidence, you can make as much noise as you like,” but it will not lead to change. From taking videos and pictures, to interviewing and writing comprehensive reports, organizations should be working to ensure that affected communities’ experiences can be amplified and reflected to demonstrate the true impacts of government digitalization.

October 19, 2021. Victoria Adelmant, Director of the Digital Welfare State & Human Rights Project at the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at NYU School of Law.