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Digital rights in Africa

The Ford Foundation

The Ford Foundation Graphic

The Ford Foundation believes in “equal access to, and fair regulation of, digital technology that is designed to advance transparency, privacy, access to knowledge, and free expression for all people.” Grantees of the Technology and Society program are on the front lines of the fight to protect human rights in the digital world, addressing complex and politically sensitive issues in the media and through formal bureaucratic channels.

As part of this program, Spitfire has guided 11 regional grantees on the African Continent through the process of creating and positioning an alliance to become the de facto protector and knowledge broker on issues of digital human rights for the Sub-Saharan region.

At the beginning of our engagement in 2017, the Ford Foundation faced several challenges. Grantees had limited communication experience and were not sure how they wanted to pursue collective work and on which issues. The range of issues across regions and within specific countries was great. And civil society space was divided along regional and country lines. Spitfire worked hand in hand with grantees to build trust among members through deliberate activities and practices that brought them closer together. This included extensive knowledge sharing and analysis of the current narrative on human rights in the digital world across the region. Over time, grantees realized that they had to work in concert to achieve their stated goals, so Spitfire supported the process of developing a formal governance structure for what is now the African Internet Rights Alliance (AIRA). 

As a first test of its ability for collective work, the Alliance engaged directly with the African Union (AU) by drafting a detailed formal submission that made the case for protecting freedom of online expression to the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR) as it revised the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa. Members engaged extensively with AU officials formally and informally to ensure that they understood the links between technology and free expression. It took months of hard work and years of trust building, but the submission includes detailed statements of principles on everything from the right to access information online to censorship, surveillance and the protection of at-risk groups.

Inspired by extensive training provided by Spitfire on the importance and practice of cultivating relationships with media, many members of the Alliance have established media fellowships, weekly columns in major African news outlets and other deep connections with the local news landscape. 

Spitfire recently facilitated the 2019-2020 strategic planning session for the Alliance, where members ratified new areas of collaboration. We continue to provide staff secondment and strategic counsel as the Alliance implements a new organizational structure that will increase its capacity for collective work.

Project team

Spitfire services employed

Communication planning and execution

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Issues Covered

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