Global Voices Exchange: Digital Advocacy in the Global South

How are advocates in the global south using digital tools to get things done? What are the benefits, risks and challenges to using the Internet to influence decision-makers or support communities? These are the questions being asked by a group of twelve gender equity advocates from twelve different countries in the global south who came together for a week in Marseille, France this February. The group was convened by the citizen media organization Global Voices to launch what’s being called the Global Voices Exchange (GVX). This effort, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is focused on creating training and mentoring frameworks for the practice of advocacy in the global south.

The Engagement Lab was brought onto to the team to advise on how to approach metrics and evaluation in digital advocacy. Paul Mihailidis and I travelled to Marseilles to join the workshop, which was held in a former tobacco factory turned artist space. We are very aware that it’s one thing to do the work, but it’s quite another to effectively assess the value of the work and be able to communicate that value to communities, decision makers and funders. The women participating in the workshop, from countries as far ranging as Zimbabwe, Pakistan, Mexico and Palestine, and representing everything from small activist collectives to large NGOs, were nearly universally stumped by the simple question: how do we identify and talk about success in digital advocacy?

When we first started this project, we thought the answer was going to involve pointing people to the things they should be counting. But as we talked to people and better understood the conditions in which they were working, we quickly realized that numbers are dreadfully unreliable. While the Internet has made it vastly easier to reach people, it has also distorted expectations of success. Many people felt as though they needed to operate at the scale of the Internet — that success was counted in thousands, if not millions, as opposed to hundreds, or tens. The problem with this assumption is that it doesn’t take into consideration the variable risks or costs associated with that reach. For instance, for people to simply access a website and comment on something in Zimbabwe, they are spending money on data and placing themselves at risk. These factors, not unique to Zimbabwe, are absolutely essential when determining the meaning of numbers and the value of counting them.

We started the week talking about measurement, and we ended it by talking about identifying and communicating value. In the varied and often dangerous communication landscape of the global south, it is imperative that people understand digital advocacy and the possibility of reach as situated within a cultural, social, and political framework. The practical piece of this has to do with the responsibility of the advocate to not only seek change, but to communicate the value of the process. If people are too quick to declare something a failure, or don’t see themselves as having the capacity or authority to declare something a success, then nothing will change. The power of the work coming out of GBX is its reflection on process, its recognition that all numbers are contextual, and a framework sourced by and created for the global south.

Over the course of the week, these twelve amazing women were so incredibly welcoming to us. We shared experiences, workshopped solutions, drank wine, and ate French food together. At the end of the week, I feel like we all got a little smarter individually and a lot smarter collectively. We will always have Marseille; and I trust when this guide is complete, that the impact will go well beyond those that happened to be present that week.