Eastern Africa: Digital Technologies Must Respect Human Rights

Eastern Africa: Digital Technologies Must Respect Human Rights - Transparency

Students in Sierra Leone. Photo: Develop Africa

Rapid advancement in technologies can be a key opportunity for progress around the world, helping bridge the digital divide, and fostering citizen participation in governance. Through these technological innovations, governments worldwide seek greater resilience and the enhancement of transparency and accountability, and, along with the improvement of citizen engagement, they hope to become more efficient in providing services to the people. A fundamental pillar of these emerging technologies is Artificial Intelligence (AI). While the most commendable efforts from government mean AI and tech are being used to support e-Governance, the protection of human rights must be maintained – and not weakened – by technology.

These concerns have prompted the theme for this year’s International Day for Universal Access to Information (IDUAI): “Artificial Intelligence, e-Governance and Access to Information”, exploring the role AI and e-Governance play in ensuring the right to information. 

Over the last 50 years, artificial intelligence has had a tremendous impact in various sectors, including medical services, big data, language translation, and most recently, e-governance. E-governance services make it possible for governments to strengthen their information ecosystems by providing easy and timely access to public information, ensuring transparent legislative and procurement processes and efficient delivery of services. 

And yet, the use of AI presents a range of risks and ethical concerns, and significant challenges to these protections. Any threats new technologies pose to the protection of human rights must be condemned, transparency and accountability must be ensured, and challenges must be addressed. Authorities must not be allowed to use these technologies to set back gains made in these key areas and evade their transparency obligations, such as ensuring the public has access to public information.

Public administrative institutions using AI and other information technologies must be compliant with the right to information. It is vital that AI and e-governance are used ethically; in particular, data protection, and privacy safeguards must be at the heart of all processes, and decisions, such as those related to the use of algorithms, must always be transparent.

The Agenda for Sustainable Development and Eastern Africa

Using new technologies to enhance good governance requires significant resources, including human expertise and digital infrastructure. Because of this, marginalised communities and developing countries could be at a disadvantage.

The United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development emphasises a holistic approach to achieving Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for everyone through the principal commitment of ‘leaving no one behind’. The right to information is specifically outlined under SDG Target 16.10: ‘Ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms in accordance with national legislation and international agreements.’ Over almost two decades, there has been relatively significant progress on the Right to Information in Eastern Africa. The number of laws that specifically guarantee the right to access information has grown in that time, from Uganda being the only country with an access to information (ATI) law in 2005 to eight other countries – Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan, South Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, Seychelles – enacting ATI laws by 2022. However, most African countries are yet to pass and implement national laws that guarantee public access to information, and even those with specific laws in place struggle with implementation.

Open governance and open data go hand in hand with the right to information because all seek to remove undue restrictions on the use of public data. This ensures the public can access information about what governments do and can share this information with others, making governments more transparent and accountable. Principles of open governance and data also facilitate healthy debate and better decision-making. To date, 14 African Countries have joined the Open Government Partnership (OGP) – a multilateral initiative promoting transparent, participatory, inclusive and accountable governance. While e-governance and technological innovation are at the core of OGP commitments, of the 14 African members, only 10 states have enacted data protection legislation: Burkina Faso, Cabo Verde, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Malawi, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, South Africa, and Tunisia. Malawi and Nigeria have draft legislation in place, and there are no data protection laws in Liberia and Sierra Leone.

There is a vibrant movement by state and non-state actors on the use of data across the continent. Still, there remains a significant gap and a need to ensure the ethical use of data while safeguarding fundamental rights. On 28 July 2022, the African Union (AU) published the AU Data Policy Framework to enable member states to create a healthy and just data ecosystem. The Executive Council endorsed the framework in February 2022. It seeks to ‘create a consolidated data environment and harmonised digital data governance systems to enable the free and secure flow of data across the continent while safeguarding human rights, upholding security and ensuring equitable access and sharing of benefits’. The framework further provides a set of detailed recommendations and actions to guide member states through the formulations of domestic policies, as well as recommendations to strengthen cooperation among countries and promote the flow of data across Africa.

As the UN member states adopted the Tashkent Declaration at the Global Conference on Universal Access to Information on 28 September, we urged African Union member states to also adopt and implement the African Union Data Policy Framework to promote the ethical use of data in e-governance while safeguarding human rights.

For more information, please contact:

Sarah Wesonga, Programme Officer- Transparency and Access to Information, ARTICLE 19 Eastern Africa

Email: [email protected]