6 April 2021

In this episode we talk to Nanjira Sambuli about technology, philanthropy and civil society. Nanjira is a researcher, policy analyst and advocacy strategist based in Nairobi, Kenya.  She is a board member at Digital Impact Alliance, Development Gateway and The New Humanitarian (formerly IRIN News). Nanjira is also a Commissioner on the Lancet and Financial Times Commission on Governing Health Futures 2030: Growing Up in a Digital World.

In a fascinating and wide-ranging discussion we touched on:

Digital civil society

  • Is there any meaningful distinction between “civil society” and “digital civil society” now? I.e. is technology no longer something that should be seen as a cause area or a tool, but a cross-cutting factor that affects all CSOs?
  • What dangers are there for CSOs in assuming that platforms are objective or neutral public spaces? Are these problems likely to be made worse by the enforced pivot to digital for so many orgs as a result of Covid?
  • How do we link existing work by digital activists etc. to more traditional actors within civil society (e.g. foundations) that might be interested in engaging on technology issues?

Influencing the wider development & implementation of tech

  • Can CSOs play a meaningful role in ensuring that tech is designed and implemented ethically?
  • Is this even the right framing? Does the focus on “ethical” tech development beg the question of whether we should even do some of these things at all (and not just “do them ethically”)? Does it divert attention from the need for more traditional mechanisms of legislation and regulation?
  • Do CSOs from the ‘global south’ face particular challenges when it comes to influencing the development of tech?
  • What role can foundations and funders can play in helping non-profits engage with technological change?

Power dynamics

  • What challenges do the inherent power imbalances between CSOs and tech companies create?
  • Do power imbalances within civil society also pose challenges? (E.g. between funders and recipients, or between CSOs in the global north and those in the global south?)
  • Do we need to make philanthropy more democratic, or accountable to the people and communities it is supposed to serve? If so, how?

Automation and the fourth Industrial Revolution

  • Should we take an optimistic or pessimistic view of the impact of technology on civil society?
  • Should we be worried that CSOs and funders are not getting to grips with either the challenges or opportunities of the fourth industrial revolution?
  • What role do you see for CSOs in addressing the impact of algorithmic bias? Is such bias likely to affect CSOs themselves? If so, how?

The future role of philanthropy in society

  • What should we make of criticisms that since philanthropy is to some extent a product of existing structural inequality, it can never truly be part of the solution? Are the donors and funders who recognise these challenges and are genuinely pursuing structural change?
  • Does the fact that a growing proportion of philanthropic wealth comes from donors who have made their money in tech present challenges when it comes to getting philanthropy to focus on the societal impacts of technology? E.g. Are these tech donors particularly prone to “tech solutionism” or more likely to assume the inevitability of technological development?

Predictions and foresight in civil society

  • The pandemic has highlighted the importance of looking ahead to the future. How can we get more foresight and futures thinking embedded in civil society? What role could foundations and funders play?
  • What role should civil society and philanthropic funders be playing in developing imagined futures that are informed by the voices of people and communities on the ground around the world?

Related Content

Nanjira’s recent article for WINGS, “On the Patient Capital Needed from Philanthropy in Tech”.

Video of the WINGS Forum 2021 event on “Philanthropy and the Digital Revolution” that Nanjira and I were both involved in.

What is Digital Equality?” Interview with Nanjira Sambuli” in European Sting

Rhod’s WEF articles, “Philanthropy is at a Turning Point: Here are 6 Ways it could go” and “Where are Charities in the Great AI Debate?

Our CAF Giving Thought podcasts with Lucy Bernholz and Cassie Robinson.

Rhod’s 2018 Alliance article “Riding the Tiger of Technological Change

About the Giving Thought podcast

The Giving Thought podcast is an exploration of trends in global philanthropy and civil society. Launched in 2017 it is recognised as an insightful and influential source of philanthropic debate.  Rhodri Davies director of our Giving Thought Think Tank hosts the podcast, discussing contemporary issues and interviewing sector experts. Episodes are also available free on iTunes and Libsyn.

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