USAID-UNDP Asia Regional Civil Society Experience Summit

The USAID-UNDP Asia Regional Civil Society Experience Summit was to be held in Bangkok, Thailand, between May 27 and 29, 2014 but cancelled at the last minute by the organisers on account of the recent political unrest in the country.

As noted in the invitation I got to represent civil society from Sri Lanka at the Summit, it would have been attended by UNDP and US government governance specialists, as well as experts from academia, think-tanks, non-governmental organisations, the private sector and other non-traditional partners.

The Experience Summit follows from the Civil Society Roundtable held at the UN General Assembly in October, 2013, and will serve as a key part of a year-long initiative to put a spotlight on the critical role that civil society plays in the development of sustainable democratic countries. The summit will be an opportunity to learn from one another about current critical issues through the lens of programmatic approaches, including technology tools and innovation, and to consider a cross-sector approach to Asia’s changing political, economic, social, and environmental landscape.

The objectives of the summit were to:

  1. Outline and discuss principal challenges to more effectively supporting civil society in Asia;
  2. Share innovations, technologies and best practices in overcoming these challenges; and
  3. Expand knowledge by engaging new partners, gaining experience and building new networks of contacts to strengthen development assistance programming in Asia;

In addition to attending, I was invited to be on a panel that would have judged innovations around a challenges forum linked to technology and development, and also invited to  do a ‘Flash presentation’ of five minutes,

…providing inspiring examples of how ICTs can be used for reaching development goals, while highlighting the realities CSOs must face in light of increasing use of ICTs in their work and society, including digital safety/security and working towards a positive ICT enabling environment.

In my presentation, which I never got to make, I looked at the advent of big data, and how it could be leveraged for development as well as the interrogation of governance and government. I then focussed on the local and the more granular perspectives, afforded by the spread and affordability of smartphones and tablets, leapfrogging the connectivity (and content creation) that a decade or so ago, policymakers thought would have only thought possible through the establishment of cyber-cafes around a country (e.g. nenasala’s in Sri Lanka). Anchoring the growth of civic media and citizen journalism in general to this underlying growth in ICTs across social, economic and identity groups, I flagged how even the government of Sri Lanka, by holding Twitter Q&A’s, had embraced social media. I would have briefly noted that merely using social media to engage with a select public sporadically did not mean, or bring about to any degree, a revolution in the deeply problematic frameworks of governance.

I went on to flag Moving Images from 2011 and 30 Years Ago from 2012 as key examples of how visual storytelling made possible by digital media and content produced for the web could bear witness to inconvenient truths and traumatic histories.

Echoing Chimamanda Adichie’s submission around the importance of giving voice to many stories, I ended by presentation by noting how ICTs had enabled many, who didn’t have a voice before, to record their stories and showcase them to the world. How we chose to engage with this content production and dissemination, I would have argued, is what will increasingly differentiate mature democracies from fragile states.

This presentation was made in widescreen (16:9 aspect ratio) and is best viewed full screen.

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