Africa: Ensuring a Healthy and Safe Digital Future for Young People

Fondation Botnar is a philanthropic organisation that is working to address the well-being of young people in the digital age in Africa.
27 July 2023

Kigali, Rwanda — In the 21st century, young people are increasingly living their lives in urban and digital spaces.

Technology is no longer a mystery and has become deeply ingrained in various aspects of our lives. The rapid pace of technological adoption across societies and industries has led to a better understanding of its capabilities and its transformative potential. This presents both opportunities and challenges for their well-being.

On the one hand, digital technologies can provide young people with access to education, healthcare, and employment opportunities. They can also connect with friends and family from all over the world. On the other hand, the digital world can also be a place of danger and isolation. Young people may be exposed to cyberbullying, online predators, and harmful content. They may also feel pressure to conform to unrealistic beauty standards or to engage in risky behaviors.

Fondation Botnar is a relatively new philanthropic organisation that is working to address the well-being of young people in the digital age in Africa. The foundation's CEO, Stefan Germann, says that their focus came out of a recognition of one of the global megatrends: never before have so many young people lived in cities and on the internet. Germann has worked for over 15 years in Africa in various health leadership roles within different agencies in the area of child health related to development, relief, and advocacy work.

The birth of Fondation Botnar in 2017 stemmed from a deep understanding of the global mega-trends shaping the world. "There are there 1.8 billion young people living in this world, and they live mainly in cities, but as well, many of them are in the digital spaces," Germann said. "We believe that AI and digital technologies have the potential to improve young people's lives, but we also recognise the risks. That's why we are working with young people to create safe spaces in both the digital and urban realms."

One of the ways that Fondation Botnar is working to improve young people's well-being is by partnering with Amnesty International to make online and digital spaces safer for young people. The foundation is also supporting research into the impact of digital technologies on young people's mental health.

"We have chosen the topic of AI and digital spaces, and we are starting to look at both the upsides and risks of AI and digital technologies. Our engagement here at Women Deliver is very much focused on young people's well-being. We focused on getting young people's voices around mental health on our radio stationRising Minds is a pop-up radio show co-designed by young people and some of our partners. We have identified that many young people are struggling with their mental health, and we want to use our platform to amplify their voices and raise awareness of this issue," he said.

"We want to make sure that young people are able to use digital technologies in a way that is safe and healthy," Germann said. "We also want to make sure that they are able to use these technologies to improve their lives."

Artificial intelligence (AI) is rapidly transforming our world, with the potential to improve our lives in many ways. But what if AI is used for evil? What if it's used to create mass surveillance systems, or to manipulate people's emotions?

"So the answer to how we can ensure that AI is used for good is not clear at the moment. I think anyone who claims to have the answer probably has an agenda that is different from the public interest," said Germann.

To ensure that AI is used for good, Germann suggests some pathways that we can explore.

"One is to promote the use of existing international law frameworks, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child," he added. "These frameworks can help to ensure that AI solutions are developed and used in a way that respects human rights."

Germann gave an example of a talk hosted by The Center for Humane Technology where Tristan Harris, who co-created the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma discussed the ethical dilemmas of artificial intelligence (AI). The talk, which is available on YouTube, is called The AI Dilemma.

"In their talk, it showed how an AI chatbot could be used to groom a 13-year-old girl. The chatbot was created using a generative AI model, and it was able to have a conversation with the girl that was indistinguishable from a conversation with a real person. The chatbot talked to the girl about sex and relationships, and it even encouraged her to meet up with a 20-year-old man. This study shows how AI can be used for harmful purposes if it is not properly supervised."

"Another pathway is to raise awareness of the potential risks of AI, such as the risk of grooming children online. We need to make sure that companies and governments are held accountable for the way that they use AI, and that they take steps to mitigate the risks. Finally, we need to be creative in the way that we use AI for good. For example, AI can be used to improve education, health care, and agriculture. We need to find ways to use AI to solve the world's biggest problems," he said.

So how do we ensure that AI is used for good?

"The lack of regulatory frameworks has allowed companies to create billions of dollars worth of businesses. If these businesses are used for good, there are huge upsides for humanity and the planet," he said. "For example, in the field of agriculture, Zimbabwe is leading the way in Africa in using drones to improve crop yields. Drones can identify areas where more fertiliser is needed, and they can also optimise crops. In education, the role of teachers is changing. They are becoming more like learning enablers, rather than content teachers. There is no point in teaching content that can be easily accessed online. Instead, teachers should focus on helping students learn how to learn."

"Just as some of us grew up with books and open-book assignments, we can still succeed in the digital age by learning how to think critically and solve problems creatively," he added.

In some countries, there are laws that criminalise certain types of online activity. For example, in Uganda, it is illegal to be homosexual. This means that people who are LGBTQI+ may be at risk of violence or discrimination if they are found to be using the internet in certain ways.

It is important to find ways to protect people's digital rights, even in countries where there are laws that criminalise certain types of online activity. This can be done by using encryption and other security measures to protect people's privacy. It is also important to raise awareness of the risks of online discrimination and violence and to provide support to people who are affected.

Fondation Botnar is a philanthropic organisation that is working to address the well-being of young people in the digital age in Africa.

However, Germann argues that governments are not abiding by the human rights conventions that they signed themselves, and that big tech and big government are using data and digital technologies to increasingly extract and oppress people. The text also warns that the first time we encountered AI as a human society was through social media, which uses algorithmic intelligence to make us addicted to our phones and to feed us fake news.

He says that in the next five years, we will see the rise of intimate AI, which will allow us to create fake realities. This is a big dilemma, as we need to find ways to create digital identities that are certifiable and can be validated, but we also need to be careful not to give too much power to governments. The solution is to develop trust-based AI that is human rights-abiding, he says.

What Can Be Done to Close the Gap

Artificial intelligence (AI) has the potential to revolutionise various aspects of society. One area where AI holds significant promise is in the field of mental health and youth well-being, particularly in empowering young women.

Young women in urban and digital spaces face several challenges that hinder their access to opportunities and limit their potential. One of the most significant challenges is the digital gender divide, which refers to the unequal distribution of digital technologies and access to the internet between men and women. This divide is compounded by the pushback against women and girls, which is a form of gender-based violence that is prevalent in both urban and digital spaces.

Secretary-General António Guterres said that "the gender digital divide is fast becoming the new face of gender inequality," adding that "online spaces are not safe for women and girls, as they have been attacked, targeted, or denigrated on the internet." Guterres added that the situation must change, and in the face of the "patriarchal pushback", the international community must push forward for women, girls, and the world.

This pushback takes various forms, including online harassment, cyberbullying, and the spread of misogynistic attitudes and stereotypes. It may also lead to reduced access to education and employment opportunities, increased risk of violence, and limited participation in decision-making.

Germann says that the lack of diversity in the AI field is a huge problem. He points out that the first World Summit on AI in Amsterdam in 2017 had only 5% women in attendance. This means that AI technologies have been developed by men, and as a result, they often have built-in biases. For example, facial recognition algorithms are often trained on white male faces, which means that they may not work as well for dark-skinned women. This can have serious consequences, such as preventing women from being able to access emergency services or receive accurate medical treatment.

Germann argues that we need to do more to break down these biases.

"AI algorithms that are used to assess whether a caller has a cardiac arrest may not be accurate for women, as the symptoms of cardiac arrest can be different for men and women," he said. "This means encouraging more women to enter the AI field and ensuring that AI technologies are developed with diversity in mind. He also points out that governments and companies need to be held accountable for ensuring that their AI solutions are human rights-compliant."

Collaborative efforts

"Collaborative efforts are essential to address the complex challenges we face in AI and digital technologies," he said. "It's only through collaboration that these complex challenges that we face are going to be addressed."

"I recently met with the Secretariat of Smart Africa, a group of 31 African countries that are working to create a Pan-African digital market. This would allow data and digital finance to flow freely across Africa, which would be a huge boost for the continent. We are supporting the development of the Digital Health Blueprint, a collaborative initiative that brings together different stakeholders from the private sector, government, and academia. This project is working to improve the use of AI in healthcare in Africa," he said.

The foundation firmly believes that collaborative efforts are vital to address complex challenges in AI and digital technologies. Working closely with organisations like the Secretariat of Smart Africa and the Digital Health Blueprint initiative, Fondation Botnar fosters intergenerational solidarity and seeks to amplify young people's voices.

"These initiatives, including the new Global Initiative on AI for Health, which brings together the ITU, the World Health Organization, and the World Intellectual Property Organization, are key to work on the ethical and responsible use of AI in healthcare," he added.

Empowering Youth to Shape Their Future

Germann said that "their key engagement is to enable young people in urban spaces and indigenous spaces across Africa to have their voices heard. We believe that young people are digital experts and that those under the age of 30 are the ones who need to be leading the way in the digital age".

"We have concrete programs in place to support young people in this area. For example, in Tanzania, we have worked with the city of Arusha to transform the city through digital technology. This program has been so successful that the capital city of Dar es Salaam is now sending delegations to Arusha to learn from their example. We have also worked with young people in Ghana, Senegal, and Morocco to develop local digital solutions. In all of these cases, we have partnered with local organisations to create safe spaces where young people can engage with policymakers and other stakeholders. This has allowed us to build intergenerational solidarity and create new solutions that are not designed by programs."

"We believe that the world is too complex to have linear solutions that can be assigned. Instead, we need to create spaces where young people can come together and collaborate to find solutions that emerge from the ground up. This is the only way to ensure that the future is truly inclusive and sustainable."

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