Civic tech has the power to disrupt issues that are often overlooked or ignored by governments. #GlobalGoals
This fall, the United Nations is preparing to launch its 17 Sustainable Development Goals—an extraordinary action plan to solve the world’s biggest problems by 2030. Over the coming months, we’ll be connecting with The Local Globalists: 17 nonprofit founders, entrepreneurs, and social innovators who are working every day, wherever they are, to turn one of the U.N.’s #globalgoals into reality.
Goal 16: Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable, and inclusive institutions at all levels.
Activist and technologist Hera Hussain does not have a lot of free time. Sure, she has a full-time job as a community manager of the world’s largest open database of corporate data, but that’s just the start of it. The London resident runs workshops for a global network of social entrepreneurs known as MakeSense and, as the founder of advocacy group Chayn—an open-source project that leverages technology to empower women against violence and oppression so they can live happier and healthier lives—spends a great deal of her time working on issues at the intersection of tech and gender.
Past Chayn projects have included a hackathon to create solutions to end sexual violence in conflict zones and an online toolkit for domestic abuse survivors to build their own legal case. When you look at Hussain and Chayn’s work, you start to see a theme emerge: using tech to place agency in the hands of people who are most overlooked by society. It just so happens, Hussain says, those people most often tend to be women, especially women of color and those living in the developing world.
“[In the civil society sector], you either have events that just focus on women—which is great, because it brings much-needed attention to the needs of women—or you have events that are completely dominated by men and are either forgetting that women exist or have separate issues,” Hussain says. “There’s very little middle ground that uses an integrated women lens as part of a broader focus of solving societal challenges. ”
One attempt to disrupt that dichotomy is Chayn’s upcoming project, a hackathon called #PeaceHackBEY, which takes place on September 25 in Beirut (if you’re in the area, sign up to participate). In partnership with the global NGO International Alert, Chayn will bring together a variety of technologists, activists, thinkers, and engaged citizens aiming to create solutions to some of the major social problems facing Lebanon today. The project couldn’t come at a better time. In recent weeks, anti-government protests have swept across the city over issues like public services—rubbish hasn’t been collected in weeks—as well as the lack of resources and support for the over one million Syrian refugees that have entered the country to escape turmoil and seek a better life.
With all of these problems, Hussain says that Lebanon is ripe for this kind of “civic-tech” approach that Chayn endorses, which puts both men and women at the helm of the design process.
“Civic tech is a term that emerged because there was demand for citizens to create solutions when the response from government was slow and people wanted to make change on their own,” Hussain says. “This hackathon felt like it was the right thing [for Chayn to get behind] because it was tackling issues that Lebanese society faces as a whole—access to services, resources, and information—but which tend to affect women most because they’re disenfranchised.”
Hussain says that civic tech has the power to disrupt issues that are often overlooked or ignored by governments—including those related to gender—because it highlights the disparity between what government is doing and what society actually needs, and then compels policymakers to act.
“Tech and society are always further ahead than governments and governments are playing catch up, but we’re slowly starting to see this change,” Hussain says. “By using tech to fill gaps in access to information and justice, we can either complement efforts that governments and NGOs are already doing, or point out where they are failing.”
Chayn is headquartered in London, but Hussain is originally from Pakistan and heads a diverse team of volunteers from all over the world. Because of this, she says she was apprehensive about taking on a project in Lebanon, where Chayn didn’t have a history of projects. The go-ahead was made only after consulting Lebanese and Syrians involved in Beirut’s civic tech space, but Hussain says that as an organization they are still wary of the “white savior” model leveled at many do-gooders. She sees their primary role as facilitators, helping engaged stakeholders find sustainable solutions and build peace—rather than telling people what to do.
“We believe in a ‘build with, not for’ approach—that’s all about working with people you’re building solutions for, rather than building it for them without including them as part of the design process.”
So what’s the world that Hussain and her allies hope to build? That’s simple, she says:
“We always come back to independence and happiness as our two biggest goals,” Hussain says. “And that’s because that tackles issues that start from not being able to choose what women want to do with their lives and takes them to a point where they're not only choosing what they want to do with life—but being treated equally once they’ve made that choice.”