Digital Impact 4Q4 Podcast: Esra’a Al Shafei on Digital Infrastructure
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00:00 CHRIS DELATORRE: This is Digital Impact 4Q4, I’m Chris Delatorre. Esra’a Al Shafei is the founder and executive director of Majal.org, a network of digital platforms that amplify under-reported and marginalized voices. She is also a Director’s Fellow at the MIT Media Lab and serves on the board of the Wikimedia Foundation.
Earlier this year, Al Shafei tweeted about funders not adapting to digital. As the tweet gained traction, we saw the start of an important conversation about digital infrastructure and civil society. So, we reached out to the Bahrain-based activist to learn more.
Due to logistical limitations, this episode deviates from our typical Q and A format, to present my interview with Al Shafei in narrative form. This is one in a series on Al Shafei’s work we’ll be sharing in the coming months.
Esra’a Al Shafei created Majal.org in 2006. Since then, the community has evolved into an ecosystem of platforms dedicated to promoting freedom of expression and access to information. The interactive storytelling, infographics and datasets the community shares are otherwise inaccessible to journalists who aren’t allowed to enter various countries to cover important issues.
One example is Kafala, a “sponsorship” system used in Persian Gulf states to manage the growing migrant populations who are building these countries’ infrastructure. A number of human rights groups have come out against Kafala, following a rise in the abuse of migrant workers.
These datasets are invaluable to agencies and publications covering this and other issues in the region. But a lack of funding for digital infrastructure has left advocates in a precarious situation. I asked Al Shafei how these datasets are created and managed, and why funder support is so crucial to their security.
02:02 ESRA’A AL SHAFEI: We create these data sets with the assistance of our on-the-ground research teams dedicated to providing up-to-date information on the situation of migrant workers — anything from laws, policies, migration statistics, frequency of abuse reports and how they’re dealt with. It’s tons of critical information that is otherwise very difficult to find and assess locally and it is made available in various languages.
Funder support is crucial in this effort to not just gather but to protect this information to ensure that it remains accessible to help fuel appropriate advocacy efforts with meaningful impact.
02:36 CHRIS DELATORRE: It was in March that Al Shafei got our attention, when she tweeted about funders not adapting to the digital landscape. In the tweet, she writes “We can’t keep running nonprofits like we’re still in 1992. The landscape has changed. So have the obstacles. And funders aren’t adapting fast enough. It’s a huge mistake.”
She had written the tweet after the latest in a string of rejections from funders who assumed web hosting, security, and other operations could be handled through mainstream providers. But, as Al Shafei points out, for an organization handling millions of data points on sensitive issues, third party providers touting 2-for-1 sales aren’t enough. Operations like the one she overseas use applications that are built from the ground up. Now, you might be asking yourself why activists in these spaces aren’t doing more to help themselves. After all, they’re engineers, developers, and innovators. Why can’t they figure it out? Well, for Al Shafei, it isn’t that simple.
03:43 ESRA’A AL SHAFEI: Funders need to adapt to current needs. Being told that we need to simply use existing tools is not enough, as we can’t easily alter most of them to better fit our specific use cases and goals.
We can’t be expected to innovate and be creative in our approach to addressing challenges without sufficient support because the landscape has changed. We need to support creators for our work to be effective and for our mission to reach their fullest potential.
04:06 CHRIS DELATORRE: Al Shafei suggests that consumers and creators have different challenges when it comes to managing their identities online. That more centralization, for instance, through tech platforms like Twitter or WordPress or GitHub, isn’t enough to answer a lot of the issues these creators face.
One response here is that consumers should also be creators. I asked her if bridging the gap between the two might influence how funders invest in digital resources.
04:34 ESRA’A AL SHAFEI: If we’re merely consuming, without challenging or building upon existing tools, we’re not taking advantage of the resources available. Mainstream platforms don’t adhere to individual cultural and political contexts. In my experience, our impact and [the] number of people we reach has tripled since we started developing our own tools and not merely using existing mediums. But this adaptive work rarely gets funded.
We can use open source products but repurposing them, securing them, evolving them is not just a one-time cost, it’s an investment in fostering healthy and diverse communities online.
CHRIS DELATORRE: So, what’s the main aim for bringing this to the Digital Impact community? I asked Al Shafei to share on where she sees the conversation going and how you, the listener, can engage.
ESRA’A AL SHAFEI: We have a responsibility to challenge the current landscape of philanthropy to make it more useful for civil society organizations for us to reach our fullest potential. I’d like grantees to keep pushing on why this is important for funders to truly understand why their thematic focus areas can be significantly helped by these creative approaches rather than sticking to traditional models that yield metrics but not genuine, long-term or sustainable impact.
We need to take more risks in supporting interactive and engaging technologies because there’s already sufficient evidence that it delivers long-term results and multiplies outreach in a field where innovation has always been wrongly discouraged.
06:01 CHRIS DELATORRE: Stay tuned for more from Esra’a Al Shafei in the coming months. Connect with her on Twitter @ealshafei, visit Majal.org, and follow her latest posts. Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you next time on the Digital Impact podcast.
Digital Impact is a program of the Digital Civil Society Lab at the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society. Follow this and other episodes at digitalimpact.io and on Twitter @dgtlimpact with #4Q4Data.