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The Future of Digital Civil Society Depends on Basic Infrastructure


We celebrate the independence that open source affords but are we willing to support the creations it brings about?

EDITOR’S NOTE: When Esra’a Al Shafei tweeted about funders not adapting to digital, 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. This is the first in a series on Al Shafei’s work we’ll be sharing in the coming months.

Historically, civil society organizations have found creative ways to overcome obstacles and work with limited resources in order to address key issues and serve their stakeholders. But in repressive countries, challenges are compounded by routine censorship and surveillance, making it difficult for CSOs to reach their beneficiaries safely and effectively.

Meanwhile, funding models haven’t done enough to support the basic digital infrastructure needed for these organizations to work effectively toward mission.

Many CSOs working in hostile environments, specifically those using technology to engage their audiences, struggle to survive in the face of considerable costs to secure their technologies. CSOs are vital to healthy nations. They help to protect us from oppression and enable us to monitor the state of our governments. They foster the transparency needed to ensure that our societies are more open and inclusive. But in areas where grassroots advocates face opposition from the establishment, going online is often the safest and most reliable way to spread a message.

The unfortunate trend of discounting technology has disfigured the funding landscape.

Not to diminish the value of meeting IRL (in real life) but a website can reach far more constituents than a workshop could ever hope to. Yet, despite their proven effectiveness, web-based platforms targeting these regions are often dismissed or overlooked, while donors continue to focus on in-person events in areas where activists must remain anonymous out of concern for their personal safety.

Al Shafei’s tweet followed a string of rejections from funders who assumed that web hosting, security, and other operations could be entrusted to mainstream providers.

The unfortunate trend of discounting technology has disfigured the funding landscape. Foundations often refrain from supporting software initiatives, and if they do support them, they fail to consider technological and infrastructural needs as “program” expenses, leaving digital infrastructure to fend for itself.

This renders current models of technology funding woefully incomplete and unsustainable: even if a platform is built with the help of foundation dollars, costs such as server maintenance and security upgrades aren’t considered vital to the safety and functionality of the platform.

It goes without saying that such measures are crucial when serving vulnerable users and handling sensitive data sets. It’s a reality that organizations operating in repressive environments know all too well. To protect themselves and their constituents against cyberattacks, these organizations must invest in dedicated servers, monitoring services, and regular security audits, expenses of which are often deemed “unjustifiable” by foundations who underestimate the severity of such threats.

Very few foundations grasp the serious nature of cybersecurity in repressive regions. Blind to nuance, they fail to see the importance of supporting the basic digital infrastructure that will, in turn, ensure their own success.

This is perhaps due to the metrics-focused nature of outdated grant-making policies, which value short-term gains over the expertise of grantees who instinctively take steps to ensure the long-term sustainability of their projects. Meanwhile, repressive governments are slowly draining us — working to shut down CSOs one by one by playing the long game and exploiting our vulnerabilities with the knowledge that we can’t match their resources.

It is painful to witness how wasteful the social sector is when so much time and money can be used to solve major technical challenges that hinder the whole movement’s growth and urgent need for progress. Yes, organizations must be self-sustaining, but it starts with the necessary improvements.

So, many important projects have been forced offline because they can’t find the funders willing to invest in their uptime. We celebrate open source but don’t support the creations it brings about. We encourage organizations to innovate but don’t give them the resources to do so. We prize security but don’t provide the funding necessary for fixes, documentation, and iteration. Leaving them in constant survival mode, we prevent many communities from thriving.

In the end, funders must move beyond touting sustainability to enable the digital infrastructure that actually supports meaningful impact. It’s about listening to voices on the ground and understanding the immediate needs of civil society organizations within their unique environments.

It’s about ensuring the basic infrastructural needs that will in turn ensure the long-term health of our CSOs and the social movements they lead.