Nearly four years after founding the Digital Welfare State and Human Rights Project at CHRGJ, which I have directed since, I am stepping down from that role at the end of this month. 

It has been a great privilege to transform an idea that initially took shape when I was still working on the mandate of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, into a self-standing project that has contributed significantly to the global debates on digitalizing states in its young existence. The impetus for our work were the distressing experiences shared by individuals living in poverty who were confronted with the injustices that can accompany a welfare state gone digital. While government digital transformation efforts were dressed up in the language of progress and modernity, we heard the human horror stories and the basis of our project has been to confront this chasm ever since. Neither are we convinced that the future is inevitable. Our work has consistently been informed by the notion that the digitalization of the state can either be a driver of further inequalities or an opportunity for imagining more equal, fairer and human rights-respecting human societies.

I am incredibly proud of the work that our small team – and this has truly been a team effort – has achieved in the last few years together with many partners and allies from around the world. While there have been many different ways in which we have made an impact, I wanted to highlight just a few here. In its early days, our project was the driving force behind and prepared a highly influential report to the UN General Assembly that problematized what we called ‘digital welfare states’ from the perspective of international human rights. Our involvement in the litigation against a digital welfare fraud detection system in the Netherlands, called “SyRI”, led to a groundbreaking legal precedent about digital welfare states and human rights. In Uganda, our project teamed up with two amazing human rights organizations, the Initiative for Social and Economic Rights and Unwanted Witness, on extensive research about that country’s digital ID system and its implications for the right to social security and health which subsequently led to strategic litigation on these matters in Uganda’s High Court. In a report we published this summer, titled “Paving a Digital Road to Hell?”, we sounded the alarm about the World Bank manufacturing a new development consensus on digital ID with dangerous implications for the human rights of the poorest globally. Finally, we have done our utmost to leverage our privileged position at an influential university based in New York to host and bring together the voices of advocates and academics from around the world. Most prominently, through our Transformer States series, we have hosted conversations and blogs about the impact of the digitalization of the state on human rights. 

With our work having made significant impacts in the last few years and with our team in an excellent shape, this is a good time for me venture into new things and to make room for new leadership on our project. I am incredibly glad that my close colleague and collaborator, Victoria Adelmant, has agreed to take over the directorship of the project. Victoria, who is also an Adjunct Professor of Law & Clinical Law at NYU Law, has been integral to the success of the project in the past few years and is an incredibly talented, committed and driven human rights scholar and advocate. In the last few months, she has crafted an ambitious new agenda for the project that will both build on our current strengths and will take it in exciting and highly relevant new directions. I am very confident the project is in good hands with her as its new director and she will be an important voice in our field in the years to come.

I am equally glad that my other close colleague and collaborator, Katelyn Cioffi, will continue to be the project’s lead on all matters related to digital ID and human rights, which is an important workstream on our project and an area in which Katelyn has become a globally recognized expert who is widely respected for her commitment to research and evidence-based public debate, nuance and commitment to human rights.

I wanted to express my sincere thanks to all my colleagues on the project over the last few years for having done such powerful and impactful work together, to my colleagues at CHRGJ for their vital support and to the global network of advocates, academics and many other professionals who are part of a global community of people who believe that we can only live in a digital future if it is a just future.

With gratitude, 

Christiaan van Veen