Making Digital Rights a Priority for INGOs – in Palestine and Beyond

In my last post, I outlined several alarming developments that contribute to shrinking cyberspace for Palestinians:

  • Increasing persecution by Palestinian and Israeli authorities for online content
  • New legislation such as the “Cybercrime Law” by the Palestinian Authority
  • Tech companies’ facilitation of censorship, surveillance and one-sided narratives
  • Lack of sovereignty over ICT resources
Digital Rights are Human Rights, Once and for All

Looking at these trends makes it difficult to subscribe to the parables of ICT4D enthusiasts who praise new technologies for increasing transparency and accountability (Radelet 2010, qtd. in Murphy & Carmody 2015, p.3). In fact, things might even get worse: “In the wake of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we can expect more algorithms and artificial intelligence that enhance surveillance and close civil society’s space” (O’Donnell & Sweetman 2018, p.227).

Simply having access to ICT resources does not qualify you for the club of the haves.

Amid those who praise ICT’s alleged role for development and those who despise it, one central argument is often lost: Technology does not develop in isolation from human life. Rather, it closely mirrors our society (p. 227). Likewise, the Internet is not an even plain field for Palestinians and real-life inequalities often extend to cyberspace (Unwin 2017, p.2).

The debate over the digital divide between haves and have-nots of the ICT revolution is misleading. Simply having access to ICT resources does not qualify you for the club of the haves. The majority of Palestinians do have access to technology and the internet. However, that does not guarantee them the same freedoms that the Israelis and foreign aid workers living next to them enjoy.

Digital rights are an extension of Human Rights and were affirmed by the UN Human Rights Council: “the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online” (qdt. in Fatafta, p.4). Just like human rights, digital rights are often disregarded. But why should development and Human Rights organizations care what happens online if they have ‘real’ human rights concerns on the ground?

First, as my last blog post revealed, what happens online affects lives and perceptions offline. People get arrested for their posts and the stronger power may dominate the struggle over narratives in cyberspace. And there is a second reason: While ICT is not the magic stick that the development sector hoped it would be, it does have enormous potential for self-representation, community mobilization and advocacy.

The Potential of ICT in Palestine

In a highly fragmented context like the Palestinian one, the internet is the only space where people from different geographic entities can connect. Palestinians from Gaza, the West Bank, Israel and the diaspora use the internet to meet each other and to exchange ideas despite the differences in their IDs that tore them apart. Palestinians from the West Bank, for instance, use social media to show solidarity towards fellow Palestinians in Gaza. The Palestinian NGO “BuildPalestine” has even implemented a crowdfunding site through which the Palestinian diaspora can support local development initiatives.

ICT also provides opportunities to connect with a wider international audience; Palestinians who feel under- or misrepresented by mainstream and development media, can now turn to new, and participatory means of communications to convey their narrative. According to Cornwall 2016, “Digital stories, participatory photography, video blogs and zines all offer modes of communicative interventions that come with a shift from rescuer to facilitator of people’s own representations of their lives” (p.154). Digital storytelling helps people to make sense of their pain, and to capture their message in their own words (Brown 2015 qdt. In Hor 2017, p.6 ).

Photograph by the Author, Participatory Film and Theatre Workshop, West Bank 2016

A people under occupation with a stateless government that becomes increasingly authoritarian, Palestinians also use ICT to organize their opposition, to document daily injustices and to campaign for their plight through young, educated voices that have little space to participate in mainstream politics (7amleh 2017, p.7). These voices can arguably advocate for themselves more effectively than foreign aid workers and the league of autocratic old men that claims to represent them.

What Development Agencies Can Do to Support Digital Rights

Development agencies in conflict zones are often restricted by political dynamics. This affects their advocacy. In Palestine, these limitations often result in vague statements, ignorance and a marginalization of conflict. The notion of ‘Smart Advocacy’ acknowledges such restrictions and opts for communication based on local voices (Seay 2012, 115). If INGOs actively support freedom of expression and local self-representation online, they not only adhere to their own human rights and participation agenda, they also become ‘smart advocates’ who let their partners speak for themselves. Here are a few steps that INGOs can take to advocate for digital rights.

1. Partner with local NGOs that specialize on Media Freedoms

INGOS are likely not the only ones who take notices when violations of digital rights are on the rise. Their role can be to partner with local NGOs who specialized on digital rights and media activism.

2. Extend Human Rights Education to Digital Rights

Together with local partners, INGOs can facilitate trainings and raise awareness about digital rights, digital security and social media advocacy for other NGOs, students and human rights defenders.

3. Support Self Representation through Digital Storytelling

Besides capacity buildings about digital rights, INGOs can organize trainings in citizen journalism and digital storytelling while using their media platforms to spread the resulting stories. Often, a message has much more legitimacy if it comes from an NGO than form a news outlet.

4. Turn the Spotlight on Digital Right Defenders

Finally, INGOs can produce their own advocacy by turning the spotlight on local media freedom advocates and tell their stories while they are busy advocating for others. Making it clear that the international community is aware of digital rights violations and those who fight against them can put pressure on authorities who violate digital rights and tech companies that comply.

Photograph by the Author, Digital Rights Training for HRDs, Ramallah,2018

Ultimately, the debate over ICT4D circles on the simple question: Does ICT enhance the space for participation, self-representation and the plurality of voices, or does it merely export existing power structures and inequalities to the digital realm, limiting space and engagement for some while enhancing it for others? ICT is not an inevitably good or inevitably evil influence on development (If you want some proof for that, go have a look at Maia’s post “ICT not 4D”). Just like any other tool, it depends on who uses it, and with which intention. Now, that the dust has settled, and seemingly ‘new’ technologies have long become embedded in development and politics, it is time for INGOs to advocate for digital rights, just as they do for human rights.

Offline Sources

Hor, A. 2017: Searching for Redemption: Distancing Narratives in the Everyday Emotional Lives of Aid Workers. Draft Paper.

Murphy, J.T. and Carmody, P. 2015: Africa’s Information Revolution-Technical Regimes and Production Networks in South Africa and Tanzania. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.

O’Donnell, A. & Sweetman, C. 2018: Introduction: Gender, development and ICTs. Gender & Development, 26:2, 217-229.

Seay, L. (2012.). Avoiding “Badvocacy”: How to Do No Harm While Doing Good. In Beyond Kony2012. (pp. 109-118). Leanpub book.

Unwin, T. 2017: Reclaiming Information & Communication Technologies for Development. Oxford: Oxford University Press.



One comment

  1. Alexandra

    You know what I hope will happen with an increase in ICT in region? A wider representation of Palestine and Palestinians. I have the feeling that everything you hear about them in the news or social media is about the conflict and what they are in opposition to Israel. I guess the same is true of Israel as well, expect maybe for the Eurovision song contest!

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