Saturday, December 27, 2008

Information Technology and Human Rights

The Purposes of the United Nations are:…To achieve international co-operation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion….
--Article 1(3), Charter of the United Nations

(1) Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.
(2) Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.
--Article 27, Universal Declaration of Human Rights

One thing is clear. The “solutions” to the current global economic crisis (and the longstanding poverty crisis that affects most of the world) will not originate exclusively from the top down, nor will they flow solely from Global North to Global South. (Photo Credit, above left: African Recovery.)
Local, indigenous, transnational, traditional, and contemporary forms of knowledge--all must be deployed to address the global mess we find ourselves in. Concerns about the environment, jobs and living wages, food and water distribution, and an end to discrimination and violence will not be solved by self-appointed experts without the wisdom of farmers, social scientists, health care workers, midwives, historians, entrepreneurs, economists, and traditional storytellers.
Appropriate and sustainable technology (including information technology) will be a crucial tool in this massive problem-solving exchange The need for a transnational approach to global problems is not a new concept. It was even enshrined in the 1945 Charter of the United Nations and the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. (See also a 1993 UN University report on The Impact of Technology on Human Rights: Global Case-Studies.)
Many NGOs have, of course, used the internet successfully to raise awareness cross-culturally about everything from violence against women to “globalization from below.” Increasingly, governments, foundations, universities, and even multinational businesses are also said to be using information technology in furtherance of human rights or other social justice goals. Some efforts involve developing or transferring new media technologies to places where they were not previously available. Others involve the use of technology to share traditional knowledge or otherwise enhance cross-cultural dialogue through open software and low-cost hardware platforms.
Such interdisciplinary initiatives are being explored under various umbrellas: “social entrepreneurship,” human rights and business, economic development, as well as in trade and intellectual property debates.

Recent efforts include the following:
The Association for Progressive Communications (APC), which describes itself as
a global network of civil society organisations whose mission is to empower and support organisations, social movements and individuals in and through the use of information and communication technologies.
APC also publishes an annual report titled Global Information Society Watch
The Feminist Technology Exchange: A workshop on women and technology organized by the Women’s Network Support Program of the APC prior to the 2008 Association of Women’s Human Rights in Development meeting in South Africa;
One Laptop Per Child: a non-profit aimed at providing low-cost laptops to poor children.

It remains to be seen how the various information technology initiatives will result in sustained progressive change, given the range of actors involved and their disparate interests. There are dangers as well as opportunities in any such new venture. (For a discussion of the harmful effects of top-down globalization on local traditions and knowledge, see interview with Vandana Shiva, an Indian physicist, environmentalist, and activist.)

Human rights concerns about the rapid growth and pervasive use of information technology include internet privacy, government monitoring or censorship, industry or governmental capture, exploitation or theft of traditional knowledge, and inequitable access for marginalized groups such as minorities, women and girls (UNESCO press release linked here), and people with disabilities (see previous posts here and here).

But a human rights approach that centers the benefits of creativity, ownership, and control among the people most affected and the special measures necessary to counteract discrimination in educational and training access are indispensable criteria for measuring future success. That success will also be measured by the increasing presence and respect for voices from the Global South in solving the problems that affect all of us. (Photo credit above right, UNESCO.)

1 comment:

Isaias said...

this is great stuff.