The Need for a More Holistic and Public Interest Approach to Digital Development  

Why it is critical to invest and equip MSMEs and individuals with both access and security

A week ago, I was able to speak at the Global Digital Development Forum, exchanging ideas with other experts like Priya Sethi, Digital Strategy Project Director at DAI; Sotheavy AT, from DAI Global/USAID Digital Asia Accelarator; Jean le Roux, from the Atlantic Council Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab); Nancy Haugh, from TetraTech ARD’s Democracy and Governance, and Jenny Sulfath, from Digital Empowerment Foundation, on digital literacy programs, community-based approaches, and avenues to help Micro, Small & Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) protect themselves from digital harm. 

As engines of economic growth in economies across the globe, MSMEs increasingly use digital tools to grow their businesses, identify customers, and expand their brand and reputation. But relying on social media and digital solutions can also accelerate exposure to all sorts of digital harm – rumors and deep fake content, fraud, phishing, and other risks that can affect their operations or even devastate their businesses. 

What is critically and urgently needed is significant and sustained investment in a public interest-oriented and holistic approach to developing digital literacy and resilience across the globe. 

The many facets of digital literacy

It isn’t just about providing access to technology; it is about how users engage with the tech – so, passwords and two-step authentication, yes. But also critical thinking skills, disinformation and misinformation training – how to spot it, how to ignore it, what to do when you see it, how to help reduce its “virality” (is that a word)? Digital literacy is multi-faceted. If we help people stay safe, but they can’t use their tech tools effectively for their businesses (revenue, growth, sales, etc.), then it doesn’t really help. If you help them access tools for business growth, but they are not safe, then they could lose all they are working for. If they put in all of the safety measures and build financial skills, but are the victims of a disinformation campaign (and realize it), then they lose trust with the digital tool we have just given them access to. It has to be a holistic approach.

A public interest approach

 One way to ensure that the funds being invested in security and misinformation/disinformation are being stretched across development investments is to ensure that the tools and solutions we create become global digital public goods and services that can then be leveraged and re-used and accessed free of charge, increasing the scale and impact of those development investments.

At GCA, we have a growing repository of global digital public goods at the grassroots/digital literacy level – including toolkits for small and medium-sized businesses, for mission-based organizations, individuals, journalists, and elections officials. We work with local partners and engage a user-centric approach to meet users where they are at; we contextualize the information through relevant examples, case studies, and stories; and the toolkits are built with easy-to-use tools, processes, and strategies that are developed through international best practices, vetted by true cybersecurity professionals, and integrate seamlessly into existing business processes, thereby ensuring greater ease of use and sustainability.

As we fund and invest in digital development, we bear a moral imperative to not only equip those we are trying to reach with digital tools and connectivity, but we must enable them to do so effectively, safely, with trust and dignity in the online space.

The author, Komal Bazaz Smith, is the Chief Business Officer at the Global Cyber Alliance. You can follow Komal on Twitter or connect with her on Linkedin