Understanding New Funding Directions and Priorities and Implications for African Civic Tech Innovators

Facilitator: Geci Karuri-Sebina (GKS), Civic Tech Innovation Network (CTIN)

Speakers: Leon Hemkemeyer (LH), The European Partnership for Democracy (EPD); Claudia Juech (CJ), Data Philanthropy Advisor (Former VP: Data & Society at P.J. McGovern Foundation); Hawa Ba (HB) – Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA); Stan Getui(SG), Luminate 

Summary

The objective of the Funders Roundtable session was to share new directions and priorities in the funding environment and implications for the civic tech field and information ecosystems for social innovation in Africa. A number of Foundations that have been active funders of digital innovation have updated their Africa strategies with some level of focus on healthy information ecosystems and leveraging digital innovations for public good which will relate to the CTIN community. These may reflect varying views and perspectives about civic tech and the role of the civic tech community in advancing democratic participation and in addressing some of the civic space challenges that Africa is grappling with today. 

The session took a deep dive into one aspect of the civic tech ecosystem – funding and sponsorship in the context of African civic tech innovators and organisations. Critical to the funding landscape is the availability and use of data including the building of healthy innovation systems, digital innovation systems, and understanding shifts in the digital economy and how we can adapt our strategies to respond to challenges. The session invited open conversation and dialogue amongst panelists. Some of the emerging themes are presented below:

Perspectives on digital and data innovation 

Stan Getui from Luminate noted how the company recently launched its new strategy and is looking for clarity on where to focus its funding support going forward. A prominent investment is to support civic tech organisations that are doing work in information ecosystems; creating spaces for public debate and countering misinformation; and enhancing public participation to challenge power and dissent. 

From a West African focus, Hawa Ba pointed to the nuanced relationships between civic tech, innovation, art, media, open society goals; information; tech for good and tech for democracy. Claudia Juech explored the links between philanthropy data and data technology. 

The nature and scope of the African civic tech funding landscape 

The funding landscape consists of grant making roles but also teams providing technical assistance to NPOs and NGOs. In the data space, working in corporate and big institutions. In-kind contributions and grant-making are often blended. The European Partnership for Democracy, being a network of 19 European democracy support organisations, is not primarily a funder but acts as a bit in between. The organisation fundraises for internal costs, alongside support larger projects, and therefore act as a grant-making org. The EPD focuses heavily on  the European Union as a donor. Hawa Ba gave an overview of the Open Society Foundation (OSF). The OSF is part of a global foundation that advances democracy and advocates for more just and equitable civil society.

Civic tech is seen as a tool to advancing and supporting democracy through election monitoring, innovation labs, social account; community engagement; service delivery through innovation; justice sector and environmentalism etc. The OSF mandate is to promote citizen participation and expression by intersecting technology with civic engagement. The OSF strategy is based on 4 goals that frame technology:

  • Participation and expression
  • Econ equity
  • Account and justice
  • Security and rights

Threats to democracy, government accountability and civic engagement

When we look at our continent, at the issues that we are facing, we recognise that we have similar challenges.We see poor governance, a lack of accountability, and limited mechanisms for demanding better governance and accountable governance. We are in a world that is changing rapidly – climate change, the rise in authoritarianism; misinformation; digital repression; and freedom of speech infringement are just some of the entrenched challenges facing societies across the globe. Today, we also sit with issues of a general lack of functioning information and tech ecosystems as regards data surveillance and misinformation. In a nutshell, civic spaces are shrinking with democratic spaces simultaneously.

These challenges are acutely felt in African countries. It therefore becomes essential that the civic tech sector build solid networks and robust learning platforms so that partners can learn from one another. In addition to the external threats are the internal threats, as expressed by Hawa Ba puts as the: “disconnect between civic tech itself and the other elements of the ecosystem.” We therefore need to ensure to “make tech work for democracy to deliver better socio-economic outcomes.” and continue to identify new threats to open societies.

A key strategy is the building and nurturing of alliances among domestic actors – partnerships are key across different sectors of society to work on issues that affect all of us. Despite many challenges and threats to democracy, “civic tech is not the solution to democratic backsliding. It is important to see civic tech as one of many solutions and to find specific solutions to support an ecosystem’s view of tech for good applications and initiatives in Africa. Some of the examples of the donor-funded projects with a civic tech focused were discussed, include:

  1. AUCTF – Online human rights abuses monitoring tool (Mali) – design as a round system
  2. EU funded – citizen participation vis a vis AU governance architecture – Charter project Africa, where civic tech is a connector between citizens and AU
  3. Support practitioners – project focusing on access to information – key method of policy dialogue of various actors – partner with civic tech expertise

The sustainability of civic tech initiatives

“There is quite a vast community of actors [within the African civic tech space]. There is capacity to partner…I think there can be tactics and approaches that can work within governance and then others that can’t.” – Geci Karuri Sebina, CTIN

Stan Getui argued funders “… learn through funding”, thus highlighting an important role for collaborative learning and documenting and disseminating of civic tech projects. An existing strategy to build upon is using peer learning efforts (cohorts) for knowledge sharing and partnerships. A lot of NPOs find themselves in similar spots regarding challenges. And so, bringing them together to facilitate dialogue will be valuable. 

Leon Henkemeyer from EPD added that the civic tech sector should also “try to initiate civic tech initiatives into more traditional ways of working within governance structures”. The roles of civic tech are rapidly changing and importantly, the civic tech sector changes in relation to how closed or open respective democratic spaces are. Therefore, the more democratically aligned a country is, the more room there is for a functioning, vibrant and sustainable civic tech sector to grow. There is also a need to look at the demand side of civic tech, a perspective that has often been neglected. Data use should be framed as an organisational competence and that needs to be threaded between organisations and their project impacts. 

Geci Karuri-Sebina emphasised the “need to view technologies as holistic systems”. An important next step is to continue to inform governments around making appropriate policy decisions that enable civic tech rather than restrict it. 

The Need for Data Leadership

Some advice was provided on how civic tech organisations can attract funding. For example, data leadership is a critical prerequisite to attract funding. Who is setting the vision for the organisation i.t.o data tech, strategy and implementation? Where can organisations find the appropriate talent and most importantly how do they retain talent? 

Beyond data leadership, the panelists offered insights about surviving in the existing African civic tech landscape. Hawa Ba reiterated that surviving in the civic tech sector is tough and cannot rely on civic technologies alone to be sustainable. Currently, there is a shrinking in the funding landscape due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the global recession, ultimately leading to the shrinking size of donor pockets. But, she adds, “there are some ways out. We have talked about linkages, building synergies between CSO and how civic tech can be embedded into their work and project streams”. Additionally civic tech has demonstrated its robustness and resilience. During the Covid pandemic, civic tech provided very practical tools, innovations and systems to cope with disaster preparedness and pandemic response tactics and monitoring tools. Beyond the narrow funding landscape, there are also ways to diversity funding. 

Conclusion

The next step to support and sustain civic tech initiatives is to measure impact and embedded learning – learning as a way of making sure of showing results – but also as a way to test, assess risks, and thereafter adjust and adapt one’s response. At the end of the day, “we want to support a system of African innovation…that can deliver on very specific needs” – Hawa Ba. There is a need to explore funding streams that don’t look very civic tech focused but may accommodate other aims – such as entering into a partnership with a traditional CSOs to pursue common socially driven development goals. Partnering with government is another potential revenue source as well as possible collaborations with private sector companies. Think of it as blended finance that non-profit should apply for. Every funder has their own lens, interest and strategy.

Watch Full Discussion

Also check out The State of Civic Tech Initiatives on the African Continent and Financing and Monetising your Civic Tech Platform or Media Start-up in Africa