You are muted, we can’t hear you! Digital Advocacy now and in the future

Author: Marianne Schoerling []

This article discusses the essence of advocacy, reflects on why we need trailblazers and summarizes key challenges of digital advocacy for NGOs. It concludes with the potential of adopting frontier technology for engaging communities, such as Blockchain technology.

Keywords: NGOs, digital advocacy, blockchain, frontier technology

Photo: Mika Baumeister


“You are muted, we can’t hear you!” Does this phrase sound familiar to you? All of us who are participating in digital meetings, came across this sentence several times — whether directed to ourselves or towards others. It is either a request to make our voice heard, or a statement that highlights a set of rules. At the same time, these very words also can serve as an analogy for looking at control/power mechanisms of who is being heard and who is not; an analogy addressing inequality but also referring to the very foundation of any advocacy endeavour, be it digital or face-to-face.

Advocacy makes voices heard

Whenever we talk about advocacy, we are ultimately discussing the change of a modus operandi which addresses the question of who controls what, when, and how at an individual level, that of a group or an entire system. Advocacy aims for unmuting, making voices heard while protecting those involved. As expectations and needs in the digital world continue to grow, pressure rises for advocacy professionals to adopt new technologies.

Advocacy is now changing rapidly, perhaps even faster than we might had envisioned a couple of months ago. The COVID-19 pandemic has interrupted “traditional” advocacy channels in all areas of sustainable development, as measures of confinement changed the way of collaboration, led to travel restrictions and the suspension of key NGO events, like the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. Ironically, the outbreak triggered a disruption in a milestone year, which global advocacy groups have nicknamed a “super year” for activism and action.

The disruption has accelerated the need for advocates to become trailblazer, integrating technology- secured channels to engage with their community and to monitor their work.

  • Before COVID-19: Key decision-makers, civil society and international organisation used to gather at physical locations, providing advocates with a defined, more or less directly reachable audience.
  • Today, responding to COVID-19: Most high-level players can only be approached online. They became sparse in face of the digital universe. Creativity and community insight are needed to cluster them strategically in terms of approachability and their digital engagement.

New ways for advocacy are needed to make sure program-related data - like health data or other personal data - of the communities they serve is stored and managed in a secure way. This is where frontier technologies could help. But…

… The adoption of frontier technology in digital advocacy requires due diligence

Take Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT), e.g. Blockchain technology, as an example [refer to Box 1 for a short definition]. Blockchain is one of the frontier technologies that have the potential to change the way of data exchange between NGOs and their stakeholders.

Box 1: Blockchain in nutshell, Background image: Jack Moreh

One example is the 2019 collaboration of Diginex, a blockchain solutions company, and the Mekong Club, an anti-slavery NGO. They created together a blockchain project with the aim to combat the exploitation of migrant workers in Thailand and help corporations comply with global anti-slavery regulations. By storing the workers’ employment contracts securely on a blockchain application, workers could be protected from contract substitution and abuse.

When community advocates and solution-designers closely collaborate, the integration of Blockchain technology in the realm of sustainable development can make real impact.

There are three important features to take into account:

  1. Relevance: Blockchain is radically changing the future of data transaction, which can be clustered in four fields: Smart Contracts, Digital Currencies, Record Keeping and Securities. Respective applications are partially already used in sustainable development, while there are still many more open opportunities. Box 2 provides some examples.
  2. Decentralization: While the technology itself provides a high level of immutability of the data stored on the blockchain, and allows users to reach a unanimous consensus that every record is authentic and unchanged, the technology can create lack of accountability for the system due to decentralization.
  3. Monitoring: Because a blockchain can only verify data native to the chain and has no means to assess whether external data is accurate, community advocates play a critical role to monitor the quality of the data before submitted to the chain.
Box 2: Examples for Blockchain adoption [Refer to IBM: Transformative Power of Blockchain: Making Blockchain Real for Businesses, 2015]

However, among other emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality (AR), cloud computing or Internet of Things (IoT), Blockchain ranks number 1 in not being understood at all by NGOs. This is the result of the Global NGO Technology Report produced by the organisation “Nonprofit Tech for Good”. The report, with the latest data from 2019, provides the most recent snapshot to what extent NGOs use these and other digital tools. Having benchmarked 5721 NGOs in 160 countries, the report shows: digital communication and fundraising are integral parts of today’s NGOs’ advocacy strategy.

The most important digital tool for advocacy is still social media. It has become a key avenue for advocacy professionals to communicate with their wider community. Box 3 provides a breakdown with the platforms NGOs are active on, taking African and the European region as two examples. 87 per cent of NGOs in Africa regularly use social media to engage their supporters and donors; in Europe 95 per cent of NGOs do so.This is pre-pandemic data. Research is needed to see, first, how the general rise of social media usage affects their deployment for digital advocacy, and second, to what extent advocacy professionals will move from “talking to audiences” to “engaging with audiences” with the help from social media .

Box 3: Social Media Use by NGOs, Data retrieved from Global NGO Technology Report 2019

Even though the vast majority of NGOs is active in the digital space, gaps remain that ultimately affect advocacy efforts.

What are some indicators for gaps/challenges in technology adoption by NGOs?

  • Structure of digital programs: A 2018 study by NetChange on technology adoption by NGOs suggested that most NGOs struggle with how to structure their digital programs.
  • Social Media Strategy: According to the Global NGO Technology Report 2019, more than half of NGOs don’t have a written social media strategy in place. And, while a bit less than two out of three NGOs in Africa have a website, 72 per cent of those who have one can refer to a privacy policy. In Europe, 86 per cent of NGOs have a privacy policy established for their website.
  • Data Measurement: A survey by [2020] with non-profit staff from Europe and North-America, on their use of data and measurement across departments, highlighted that many NGOs do not have the data they would need on their communities. Almost the half of them are substantially or extremely challenged in capturing and managing accurate data on constituents.
  • Data Encryption: As it concerns encryption technology to protect data and communications, 59 per cent of NGOs worldwide don’t use such technology, highlights the Global NGO Technology Report 2018.

Despite some regional differences, these results call for action, particularly in the light that privacy policy is just the very basic for human rights protection.

Statistics by UNCTAD on data protection show that 36 countries have no data protection and privacy legislation at all. Cybersecurity is a challenge in every industry. Irrespective where we work, we must become/remain extremely vigilant against cyber threats.

Advocating due diligently in the online world, must build on the principle of the 2019 International Resolution on privacy as a fundamental human right ensuring that “digital risks to individuals’ data are addressed, and that personal information is treated with the privacy safeguards and protections they deserve, and that individuals affected by breaches are promptly notified”. Protective actions are to be strategically planned as part of a coherent digital strategy.

A glimpse into digital advocacy of the future

Further research is needed that looks at the combination of determinants impacting the level and way how specific technology is integrated by NGOs but also other actors.

Factors that impact technology adoption are related to the diffusion of innovation, the overall infrastructure (e.g. government support, IT infrastructure, legal standards and regulatory requirements), and information sharing behaviour.

A 2017 study on social media adoption by Nigerian women’s NGOs demonstrated that trust, security concerns, information distribution and cost are critical factors affecting social media adoption. Similar studies could be done for Blockchain adoption which seems to be the most difficult emerging technology to be understood by NGOs.

By 2015, digital-based advocacy organizations such as GetUp! (Australia), 38 Degrees (UK), and MoveOn (US) have engaged over one million members each. Five years later, 38 Degrees doubled its members to over two million supporters, and GetUp! claims on its website that only within last month, May 2020, more than 28,000 new members joined their cause. The big player Avaaz counts as we speak over 61.5 million members, utilizing digital and social media as tools for communicating, organizing and campaigning. These can be considered as first generation, digital-based advocacy organizations.

With digital transformation taking place within international development, a second genera­tion of digital advocacy needs to be established. We are surely moving into this direction.

Box 4: Three examples of emerging technologies that could be combined in advocacy, [*] Refer to WEF 2020, [**] Refer to Cointelegraph 2020

In response to COVID-19, we have witnessed a tremendous rise in virtual events, online campaigns and also crowdsourced content development:

  • Virtual televised/streamed events: e.g. the special “One World: Together At Home”, by the international advocacy organization Global Citizen and the World Health Organ­i­za­tion (WHO) in support of the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic in April 2020)
  • Online campaigns: e.g. The COVID-19 Action for access campaign by MSF
  • Crowdsourced creative content development: e.g. the #DontGoViral initiative by UNESCO, in partnership with the Innovation for Policy Foundation (i4Policy), to crowdsource local openly licensed content to inform communities across Africa about COVID-19 and combat the Infodemic in Africa)

These solutions are referring to a future where our collaboration, our way of advocating could build much more on platforms that promote trust, allow for distributed networks and decentralized collaboration. Distribution of data and decentralization are traits which DLT/Blockchain technology but also AI and AR are able to offer. As technologies they are not be worked with in silos but as ones that become even more powerful when combined.

“While social media allow activists to digitally network with others far and wide, solidarities tend to emerge in accordance to location and interest”, argue Sander van Haperen et al. (2018).

  • This is where virtual realities, such as online meeting rooms, could help to maintain community engagement over time, which is one key challenge for community advocacy. Online hackathons where challenges are addressed by an interdisciplinary group of experts is another example. However, knowledge exchange by engaging with a community of experts can be also achieved by live-broadcast events –as done by the WHO on COVID-19, engaging with a broad community of professionals in LinkedIn live events.
  • AR technology supports advocates to retell the narratives of their communities, by bridging the gap between data and understanding data. This technology superimposes digital information, empirical data directly on real objects or environments (refer to the example in Box 4), so that people can process the physical and digital at the same moment. Advocates can provide their stakeholders with the opportunity to not only imagine but see and connect to a reality far from them.
  • While also AI systems can benefit human rights advocacy, by collecting and analysing anonymized data to identify trends or by verifying the origin of data that is used for applications like chatbots, it is critical to understand it’s not the panacea to every advocacy issue. The adoption of AI requires a vulnerability sensitive strategy, understanding well, which communities, which population could be negatively affected by it.
  • The same applies to Blockchain technology adoption. Its opportunity lies in the fact that “no more intermediaries are needed to establish trust, as nodes provide immediate authentication, immutable data records, and instant data-verification” (Geneva Macro Labs 2019).

Nevertheless, organizations need to ensure, vulnerable groups and stakeholders are engaged from the beginning to prevent data bias.

Key questions for Blockchain adoption are presented in Box 5 of which the question if transparency makes sense for all stakeholders is central to be looked at right up-front.

Box 5: Modified from Streichfuss Martin (2019): The five-step approach to building your own Blockchain

Concluding remarks

Advocacy of the future will continue to make voices heard but its tools to do so will have to change alongside a societal shift towards digitization and virtualization. Blockchain could play a vital role in advocacy, as it provides the basis for immutable communication between parties. Complemented with AR and AI, blockchain technology can be useful not only for storing data but also can provide the reliable and trustworthy data required for data analysis.

Blockchain can help as mentioned in this article, for example, for storing contracts, but also in making payments or combating fraud. Many other applications can be envisaged such as providing secure data provenance, reducing complexity by making it easier to track assets, or strengthening financial inclusion by increasing disintermediation.

Any digital advocacy strategy that aims for adopting new technologies needs to foresee strategic collaborations with the technology providers. These collaborations would need to start an early stage and endure the different phases of adopting the jointly developed technological solution(s) - from partnering in the Proof-of Concept phase right to launching solutions at scale.

Technology adoption in advocacy must be a joint effort, engaging stakeholders across sectors. Respective processes, can be supported by think tanks, such as the Geneva Macro Labs, who not only bring technology providers and policy-makers together but also research with their interdisciplinary expert groups on the socio-economic and political implications of new technologies.

Marianne is a global health sociologist, working at the intersection of policy analysis, strategy design and community engagement. Based in Geneva.