In pursuit of digital humanism


Zibran Choudhury


Last week, The EFC held their 2021 Annual Conference, and Alliance asked its readers what session they would like to hear about most in a poll. The winner was ‘Philanthropy’s new normal’ in the Philanthropy track – take a look at our conference report below.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of this year’s EFC Conference was how well the four tracks – Climate, Democracy, Philanthropy and Society – were interwoven throughout. I jumped around the tracks, so it was pleasing (and helpful) to hear moderators, attendees and reading lists draw on discussions from other tracks. It felt like the discussions were becoming more layered as the conference went on.

The Philanthropy Track was led by Lucy Bernholz Senior Research Scholar at Stanford University’s Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society and Director of the Digital Civil Society Lab. She spoke to Alliance before the conference to discuss the track. ‘The thematic track on philanthropy is structured around the collective identity of civil society in the digital age. Three of the four sessions address realities shared by all institutional funders – digital dependencies, the changing nature of civil society, and questions of legitimacy. The fourth session introduces several new practices for organisational forecasting – equipping participants to develop meaningful responses to the challenges facing the sector. Our aspiration is for every participant to recalibrate their work to meet the urgent threats facing philanthropy, civil society, and democracies.’

I was intrigued about the how of this recalibration, as this was relevant to everyone. The other tracks are of course also relevant to all, but with this, there was something tangible to reach out and clasp with your hands – starting with your phone. ‘Having invited that iPhone in your pocket, you have put in your pocket a set of companies, whose tools you use, and are who are with you always. We have seen with the data that they are collecting on what can be done to democracy, wealth inequality and power.’

‘We are still very much analogue and need to update quickly to understand the depth of digital upheaval now and in the coming years.’

Lucy started the session by how many of us have a phone. As expected, all the hands went up and Lucy said, ‘We are mere folders on a server, and that is a frightening fact. How can philanthropy and civil society see themselves as independent from this?’

Bernholz uses the term ‘Digital Dependencies’ very deliberately as ‘we’ve had to adjust every institution of our life as we’re living in a digital economy, but we’ve not grappled with the depth of those changes.’ As we’ve just experienced as a global community, educating our children, managing our cities, electing, and holding our politicians to account and doing our daily work is entirely dependent on digital systems. These systems are very different to the ‘analogue assumptions that our institutional structures and regulations are built around’.

But there are opportunities to do this in a safe and equitable way that protects dignity, but we are far from achieving this. Ondřej Liška of Porticus spoke about how they are protecting individuals and creating space between us and our digital landlords. Ondřej spoke of changing the power dynamics and giving a voice to communities in global societies where the dynamics have changed drastically in the last decade. ‘A small group of political and business entrepreneurs have hegemonized a space that we thought was public.’ We need to create a space that enables multiple partners, not just philanthropy, to make a collective impact’. Here, Ondřej introduced the concept of Digital Humanism and spoke of replacing Silicon Valley, with a European Valley that is built around integrating Human Rights and Dignity and not undermining people and planet.

Harold Katzmair, of FAS Research, who partnered with Porticus on collaborative research, suggested that we need to keep pace to change the current landscape. ‘Today more than half of interactions on social media are initiated by bots’, Katzmair claimed. Their research suggested three areas which can help philanthropic ideas keep up with the modern technologies:

  • Identify policy agendas and legislative initiatives within the framework of digital humanism across Europe
  • Find the most effective entry points to promote and advance legislation
  • Provide an overview of how foundations and philanthropists are currently engaged in this area

When thinking of frameworks, it was a timely to be reminded that there is a framework that already exists to ensure accountability, called GDPR! Max Schrems, Founder of NOYB – European Center for Digital Rights discussed how these regulations have progressed. ‘Laws, regulations and GDPR exist but they are being ignored. This won’t work if it’s not being enforced. This is why we are focusing on enforcing these laws’. One insight from Max that stood out, is the sheer weight of resources from continual abusers of GDPR. ‘Some have so much money that they are happy to break regulations and pay the fines. I believe in a liberal society where there isn’t a cop behind every corner. However, within this bubble there needs to be ‘cops’ otherwise nothing would get done.’ Max also noted that many simply lack the knowledge and expertise to engage in this area, including Facebook and Google, so how can we expect organisations in our space to be active here. The theme of upskilling was touched on by Wolfgang Rohe of Stiftung Mercator who suggested, ‘build up your own expertise. Adapt to new formats and instruments. Entering this field will affect all the other fields you work in.’

The debate was a welcome evolution and addition to discussions that have already happened this year, including the WINGS forum 2021 virtual summit, which examined the role of philanthropy in the digital revolution. WINGs explored how funders can help grantees navigate these threats, and the need to be led by the activists and voices in the Global South. At the EFC, it felt like we zoomed out and explored our own extrication and engagement in this space. At our Coffee House Talk exploring, ‘The potential of ecumenical dialogue for Christian-Muslim dialogue in Europe’, I was reflecting in a slightly different context when we discussed the restoration of Notre Dame cathedral. Although there were passionate defences as the funds rolled in, philanthropy failed to tell the story of the cathedral. This is more than having a strong online presence and having the expertise to use your social channels effectively, but one of the many signs we are still very much analogue and need to update quickly to understand the depth of digital upheaval now and in the coming years.

Zibran Choudhury is Communications, Partnerships & Membership Manager

Comments (0)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *