Rights, community, and meaningful connectivity

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Rights, community, and meaningful connectivity

Kathleen Diga

Civil society engagement around communication rights has become more important and relevant than ever, particularly at this moment where we observe shrinking civic digital spaces1 for free expression without harassment or discrimination. Specifically, we see existent social platforms and, in some cases, governments flawed in their monitoring of communication channels as they are unable to counter the deluge of disinformation and censorship.

But even before engaging in these pressing topics, there is need to acknowledge that many, particularly in the global South and those most marginalised, remain left behind digitally and are not able to contribute to any digital spaces. For communication rights, there is a precondition that people would have communication access and with that, the “digitally included” can exercise their right to express themselves freely as was set out by Article 19 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Digital inclusion remains at the forefront of issues among civil society.

Defending civic space is important. We have so much to celebrate in this world filled with the diversity of knowledge, cultures, and practices. The digital potential to express one’s joy through culture, music, art and other artifacts is there. How then do we make sure we allow for such people-centred amplification? How do we avoid expressive disappearance particularly amid the current domination of a one consumer monoculture or on an internet predominantly operating in one or two languages?

If we believe in a celebratory narrative of diversity and ultimately happiness in our differences and in the people, then supporting alternative digital ways especially for rural life expression is a must. Specifically, community-owned infrastructure can help to enable this expression and the revival of the essence of life. In this way, I only see the world becoming a better place to live.

Community-centred connectivity

The Local Networks (LocNet)2 initiative is a collective effort led by the by Association for Progressive Communications and Rhizomatica in partnership with people and organisations in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean. It aims to directly support community networks and other community-centred connectivity initiatives, while contributing to an enabling ecosystem for their emergence and growth.

But what does it mean to be “digitally included”? In partnering with remote and underserved persons and groups for the last six years, collectively we have learned that participatory collaborations or action research is an appropriate approach to seeing communication change. It is the grassroots communities who will have the strongest understanding of what is most meaningful and of high value and of high stakes. It is through the same communities who identify their needs and collectively help to strengthen their local ties.

Once some of the communications activities are identified, they could potentially be addressed through the digital. From such a starting point, mechanisms like the LocNet initiative can help support these communication needs and thereby catalyse the demand for community connectivity – whether it be to the internet itself or through local digital infrastructure within their remote or marginalised regions.

The LocNet initiative contributes to the narrative that civil society and local communities can be suitable and capable partners in bridging the digital divide, specifically where there remains little to no rural communications. The initiative aims to building partnerships collectively, bringing connectivity, inclusion, and ultimately improved quality of life to previously excluded persons in the global South. We have had some exceptional partners and grassroots communities contributing to this narrative.

Licensing and shared spectrum framework in Kenya

In Kenya, there have been major strides in working in a multi-stakeholder environment towards an amenable policy environment, specifically through the licensing and shared spectrum framework3 for community networks. This framework gives smaller entities an opportunity for legal registration as a small rural operator or a community network through the low cost of registration. This simple act thereby legitimises their small businesses to provide local connectivity to small villages and hard to reach areas. “Twenty years of dreams were finally given a breath of life by a pandemic,” states Twahir Hussein, the founder of community network Dunia Moja, in a telling statement of the wish to bring digital skills to their coastal community of Kilifi, Kenya.4

This contemporary act to enable small businesses had been missing for so long in a space dominated by large multinational operators. There were few openings for those who want to serve communication infrastructure to areas that the cell phone companies are uninterested in covering due to little profit from a low density, low income household population.

But this slight opening does not come without its hiccups. At the time of writing this article, the team had seen at least five Kenyan community partners now registered. One must note the context of small communities who have never registered or prepared administrative documents like these in their recent past, so it is a steep learning curve. The process of registration should be recorded so as to guide others in their footsteps as they seek to get over some of the administrative hurdles.

We now see groups like Arid Lands Information Network5 in Nairobi and their rural counterparts in Kenya and AheriNet in Kisumu legitimised and able to operate as a community network. They can work without fear of being shut down or operating in grey areas of the law. We hope to continue to accompany these organisations and to support robust and diverse participation of civil society with the newly formed Association of Community Networks in Kenya.6

Walkie-talkie in Costa Rica

Another example can be found in Costa Rica, where indigenous people know of their own interest and capabilities in utilising communications. This has driven the group to create their own appropriate technology mechanism. Specifically, the Alto Pacuare Cabécares Women’s Association decided to set up a walkie-talkie system first in order to be able to use simple technologies of communication exchange for their local communication purposes.7 They also set up a local server to create space and archive their indigenous knowledge.

By meeting groups coming from their own starting point, there is a belief that such efforts can lead to incremental and meaningful integration and use of emergent technologies, and perhaps with the long-term behavioural change of community connectivity. We respect diversity not only of indigenous persons, but the principles of feminist internet which advocate for appropriate access and technologies as central to community-led communications.

We want to keep opening up civic space to diversity and voice. Yet overarching factors to make an environment favourable for such small scale operators or civil society continue to hinder communication rights from being realised. There are still so few telecommunication regulators who have put in place small operator provisions and to some extent they may still be unaware of this option. Broadly speaking, there are powers or institutions who wish not to allow for competition or diversity of actors in the telecommunications ecosystem.

So we continue to advocate through collective action and informed participation and frame a point of view that highlights that by creating space for small scale operators, the communication world is opened up to a larger and diverse group. Many such people can bring fresh experiences, widen opportunities for activities, digital inclusion and adoption, and with the hope of catalysing improved local activities and possibly local economies. In terms of society as a whole, it can catalyse benefits for all.


1. https://www.giswatch.org/report-introduction/digital-rights-internet-advocacy-meaningful-access/preface

2. https://www.apc.org/en/node/35376/

3. https://www.ca.go.ke/sites/default/files/CA/Licenses%20Templatses/

4. https://www.apc.org/en/blog/seeding-change-twenty-years-dreams-were-given-breath-life-pandemic-kilifi-kenya/

5. https://www.apc.org/en/podcasts/12-celebrating-community-networks-making-change-kenya-and-around-world/

6. https://www.kictanet.or.ke/towards-the-digital-super-highway-how-community-networks-will-shape-kenyas-digital-agenda

7. https://www.apc.org/en/blog/seeding-change-celebrating-indigenous-cabecar-women-who-hacked-white-mans-technology/

Kathleen Diga has worked for over 15 years in the information and communication technology for development (ICT4D) research and civil society space. She is currently project manager for the Association for Progressive Communications’ local access programme. This programme facilitates learning and exchange amongst community-centred connectivity projects and persons based in the global South.