What is the potential of digital activism to promote good, democratic governance in Latin America and the Caribbean?

In Chile, civil society is using new digital technologies to transform political participation. As part of this International Development Research Centre (IDRC)-funded project, completed in July 2014, Fundación Democracia y Desarrollo (FDD) conducted research to document how technology-enabled networks are transforming the ways in which political legitimacy and accountability are arrived at and understood. The hope was that the Chilean case may help to frame a broader discussion around democratic participation and political representation in the region, for the benefit of other Latin American countries where new social movements are emerging. The research was also designed to lead to the development of a model for citizen participation based on lessons learned. Results were disseminated through publications, media, and meetings with academic, policy, and civil society stakeholders.

Communication Strategies: 

The research approach involved:

  • documenting the practices that social media users develop to influence the public sphere;
  • documenting how internet-based political discussions generate collective action, whether in traditional forms (such as public demonstrations) or in digital forms (such as online activism or hacking); and
  • assessing how important political actors (political elites, political parties, and mass media) perceive and respond to citizen-based actions generated by social media.

The project sought to reach two different groups of users: a) scholars and policymakers interested in more accurate and locally relevant frameworks to understand the process of citizen engagement on public issues, and b) grassroots practitioners interested in acquiring actionable knowledge to enhance their capacity to effectively introduce information and communication technologies (ICTs) and social networking resources to their work.

Workshops and training material were oriented specifically to a selected number of civil society organisations (CSOs) dealing with local causes and learning how to extend the impact of activism through the use of digital tools at the local level. The programme's training materials have been widely disseminated and in some cases have been adopted by municipalities for local community leader courses.

The project used six case studies about small CSOs involved in municipal-level advocacy to investigate digital strategies among local organisations. It focused on the ability of these organisations to integrate digital tools to enhance their capacity for policy uptake, and produced a number of practical guides to assess e-readiness among local organisations. It provided a perspective on when and under which conditions digital tools could be helpful in order to enhance the ability of these organisations and, more importantly, when digital tools may actually harm organisations that are not ready to undertake digital activism. As a result, concrete tools are available for CSOs to assess when and under which conditions the digital tools will enhance their activities, and to self-assess their readiness to integrate technological tools in an effective way.

Publications (all in open format under Creative Commons and available here, in Spanish) were intended to feed the academic debate as well as discussions among activists and practitioners in the field of local governance. The results of the research have been widely disseminated; for example, more than 2,000 users have downloaded the papers from the FDD website. Some of the materials have been incorporated in pre and post-graduate courses in universities. Two public events featured the launch of the ebook "Activismo digital en Chile", and participants were invited to provide comments on draft papers. In addition, a final seminar was co-organised with Universidad de Talca and the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Derechos called "Nuevo Ciclo Politico: Internet e Incidencia en el Debate Público". Hosted by former Chilean President Ricardo Lagos, the seminar drew more than 200 researchers, policymakers, and local activists.

On issues of social activism and local governance, the project concluded that on issues of digital activism at the grassroots level, it would be more appropriate to build capacity focusing on individuals (leaders) rather than organisations (CSOs). Indeed, the research concludes that proactive social leaders will remain active beyond the lifespan of a particular cause, becoming catalysers within their community on an array of demands. Their capacity to benefit from ICT-related skills will enhance their role beyond one single and often time-bounded CSO.

Development Issues: 

Democracy and Governance, Information and Communication Technology (ICT)

Key Points: 

According to FDD, digital activism in the developing world, in particular in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), has operated for a number of years under paradigms borrowed from northern contexts. As a result, organisations, governments, policymakers, and researchers interested in this phenomenon - and, in particular, in how digital activism may be a tool to increase accountability, legitimacy, and inclusiveness of policymaking processes - lack a clear reference. FDD contends that the academic papers produced as part of the project offer a unique perspective in the region regarding the nature, conceptual framework, and dynamics explaining and characterising a wide range of emergent social movements and initiatives supported by online activism in Latin America. In a field that has been dominated in the last decade by theories of social networking that are based in social, economic, and political realities of northern contexts, having a theoretical framework that is based on evidence issued from the LAC region is a significant contribution to the field.

FDD explains that the core of the research carried out in Latin America on social activism and social media in the last decade is focused on civil society use of these strategies/tools, and how citizens use technologies to address demands. Nevertheless, the opposite perspective on how elites use - or do not use - technology to build legitimacy and ensure transparency has rarely been addressed. The research brings new evidence on how political leaders understand and use technology as a tool towards accountability. It aims to deepen how different political leaders frame the use of technologies, their fears and hopes in terms of reducing the distance with their constituencies, and their personal definitions on what can and cannot be achieved with these tools to develop a better politic.

One result of the project concerns the capacity built within FDD to develop a new stream of participatory research at the municipal level and around ICT-related topics. As a concrete outcome, FDD was selected by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to lead a large regional project on the use of existing public libraries as spaces for physical and virtual mediation between citizens and local governments. In the Chilean context, where research has demonstrated the lack of participatory mechanisms, FDD believes that public knowledge hubs (such as libraries) hold promise to play this intermediation role.

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IDRC website, December 8 2017; and Project Completion Report (November 14 2014), sent via email from Liane Cerminara to The Communication Initiative on December 8 2017. Image credit: Enzo Abbagliati, Quinto Poder