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OPENING REMARKS BY DR AYODELE ODUSOLA, UNDP RESIDENT REPRESENTATIVE FOR SOUTH AFRICA, AT WELCOME DINNER DURING THE CONFERENCE ON “SAFEGARDING ELECTORAL INTEGRITY IN THE DIGITAL AGE: STRATEGIES FOR COMBATTING DIGITAL DISINFORMATION”, 2-5 MARCH 2020, CAPE TOWN
a. It is my pleasure and honour to be part of this Conference bringing together EMBs from across Africa, Social Media (SM) Platforms, CSOs, the African Union Commission and other partners.
b. I want to thank the leadership of the IEC for partnering with us and other actors to organize this novel event that would shift the frontier of electoral management on the continent.
The IEC-UNDP Partnership is growing stronger by the day
a. The longstanding IEC-UNDP partnership since 1994 has yielded substantial results. In addition to the rising capacity and credibility, other results achieved include: (i) building consensus among political parties; (ii) promotion of development exchange across Africa and other part of the world; (iii) the civic education road shows for the youth and emerging voters; (iv) the publication of the Domestic Observer Handbook; (v) the soon to be launched Digital Domestic Observers Platform.
b. Building on the past and present achievements, we are about to sign a new MoU and Project Document. The objective of the partnership is three-fold: (i) nurturing home grown democracy through grassroots participation and engagement; (ii) building African solidarity capacity for credible elections; and (iii) and using digital technology to expand electoral access and promote transparent elections.
The role of leadership in shaping future of Africa’s development is critical
EMBs play a vital role in ensuring the emergence of visionary political leaders. We in UNDP see an effective EMB as the linchpin of democratic advancement, good governance, peace and stability. In fact, our political leaders are as strong as the combined powers of our EMBs and electorates. In South Africa, IEC is one of the few institutions sustaining our democracy due to its ability to keep to the rule of game as mandated by the Constitution. UNDP believes an empowered and capacitated EMB is a veritable tool for protecting Africa’s electoral integrity and shaping emergence of visionary and credible leaders.
Excellences, Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen,
The roles of EMBs have, however, become more challenging and tasking in the era of digitalization. We acknowledge that the relationship between digitalization (including the Internet and Social Media), elections and democracy is complex. In fact, the role of Social media is like a double-edged sword – characterised by uses and misuses that could have lasting impact on electoral processes, results and outcomes.
The strengths of digitalization and social media can be immense if effectively leveraged, including (i) expanding political participation, bringing into the electoral process marginalized and disenfranchised people like the youths; (ii) expanding the scope and coverage of electoral information dissemination and promote access to political information; and (iii) promoting electoral transparency.
The risks are also discomforting and concerning but not insurmountable
a. First, SM, if not effectively managed, has proved to be a vehicle to: (i) electoral disinformation; (ii) electoral manipulation; and (iii) electoral cyberattacks – all capable of undermining electoral processes and results.
b. Second, the rising wave of foreign powers in swaying local elections is not only discomforting but also very dangerous.
c. Third, recent developments where some SM platforms have excludable rights to censor content, disable accounts, and filter information based on algorithms and community standards could lead to information capture and disinformation that disenfranchises thousands of citizens.
d. Fourth, managing these risks have taken several forms in Africa including shutting down of the Internet - 13 times in 2017, 21 times in 2018 and even more in 2019.
Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen,
With strong collaboration between EMBs, SM Platforms and CSOs, maximizing the strengths and mitigating the negative impacts of SM is possible. This leads me to the key questions begging for practical answers that should dominate our discussions in this Conference:
(i) How can we use SM to advance electoral integrity and defend democracy in Africa?
(ii) What can be done to maximize benefits of SM in Africa’s electoral process?
(iii) How can we strengthen collaboration between EMBs and SM Platforms to accelerate mitigation of associated risks? And how can the emerging SM threats be turned into electoral opportunities in Africa?
(iv) Can SM actors like Face Book and Twitter help to create non-excludable criteria, community standards and network neutrality in ways that ensure electoral integrity in Africa?
Providing answers to the foregoing questions are the main goals of organizing this event that brings experts from within and outside Africa to provide practical knowledge and cognitive experience on how these issues could be effectively addressed. The bringing on board of key SM actors like Face Book and MTN offers a solid opportunity to understand the engine room and the black box of SM in advancing and defending democracy in Africa.
In conclusion, Excellency, Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen,
a. We believe in the African adage that says, "If you want to go fast run alone, but if you want to go far run together”. We want to go far in promoting electoral integrity and in advancing and defending democracy in Africa. Therefore, we in UNDP and IEC have decided to bring EMBs, SM Platforms and other operators together in order to turn SM threats to electoral opportunities in Africa.
b. The IEC and UNDP’s goal is to ensure this event is not another talk show. It is envisioned to be a solution-driven event whose outcomes will continue to shape SM innovation for electoral transformation and integrity in Africa
c.The journey of a thousand miles starts with one step. The time to start is now.
We count on you to make this a reality.