You have heard it before. Digital technology is a double-edged sword. Digital spaces and technologies can expand avenues for youth participation in democratic processes, facilitate dialogue with decision-makers, and support civic activism. At the same time, it can be misused to limit civic space and undermine human rights.
If our goal is to enhance credible and inclusive democratic processes responsive to the needs of young people – how can digital technology help us?
How can we ensure that digital technologies leave no one behind and what guardrails need to be put up to address human rights concerns?
These questions are at the core of the Tech for Democracy project, funded by the Government of Denmark, and the Sustaining Peace During Electoral Processes (SELECT) project, funded by the European Union. We asked five young leaders from across the globe who are using digital technologies in their daily work to support voices often unheard and under-represented and contribute to governance, peace and development. Here is their advice to policymakers.
To enhance credible and inclusive democratic processes responsive to the needs of young people, policymakers must invest in connectivity and policies that enable equal access for all.
According to Lei, one of the main obstacles for young people in the Philippines to benefit from digital technology is lack of access, particularly due to affordability and availability of infrastructure. She notes that this is particularly a challenge for people and communities living in rural areas. This was echoed by Wevyn, Zureyka and Mohamed and came out as a central issue in UNDP’s youth consultation on technology for democracy.
Wevyn further underscores that “statistics show that women are still behind in terms of access” and that any investments in access must take the digital gender gap into account. In fact, 2.7 billion people have no access to the internet today, and women and girls make up the majority.
As noted by several of the young leaders, lack of access due to poor infrastructure and lack of affordability is particularly prominent for youth in the global south. According to UNICEF, 71 percent of youth between the ages of 15-24 have access to the internet. Yet this figure is tipped in favor of youth from the Global North, with approximately 346 million lacking access to internet in the Global South. For instance, 60 percent of youth in Africa are not connected, while only 4 percent in Europe do not have access to the internet.
Barriers to access is not just reflected in lack of infrastructure or affordability. Digital literacy and meaningful engagement online are key pieces to the puzzle, and should be invested in.
According to Zureyka, lack of digital literacy is a major barrier for digital technology to contribute to increased civic engagement. In the case of Peru, the digital platform Redpública that Zureyka works with has shown great potential in engaging young actors in problem-solving and decision-making processes. However, a large part of the population is not aware or does not know how to use digital tools or online spaces that are at hand and are thereby excluded.
According to Wevyn, the gender dimension is another key component for policymakers to put front and center when speaking of digital literacy. She notes that there is a clear lack of Kenyan women in the technological space, as digital opportunities do not consider the needs of women and gendered minorities.
Both Wevyn and Lei underscored that digital literacy goes beyond learning how to use digital technologies. It is as much about teaching youth and the public at large about the opportunities for using digital tools and platforms to facilitate meaningful engagement and inclusive processes.
For example, Lei has, through her work, used AI to improve public services and promote co-creation for local development. She underlines that “AI can help governments make better decisions by analyzing large amounts of data and identifying patterns that humans may miss”. However, she notes that institutions need to invest in data governance and programmes aimed at building digital literacy at scale to make sure people can participate meaningfully and effectively use these technologies with an understanding of associated risks.
Affirmed through youth consultations conducted by UNDP, there is a strong call to invest in digital skills and literacy at scale to contribute to quality education and facilitate (youth) civic activism. One specific recommendation informed by the SELECT consultations is to include digital literacy in voter and civic education programmes throughout the electoral cycle to increase young people’s capacity to leverage digital technologies in their peace efforts, monitoring of violence and political participation.
 UNDP (2022). Youth perspectives on tech for democracy
 Sustaining Peace during Electoral Processes, SELECT Youth Participation Report.
While several of the young leaders highlight the benefit of using digital platforms and online spaces to advocate for change, safety is a key concern. According to Mohamed, cyberbullying and online harassment is causing young people to feel unsafe on online platforms in Libya. This is a concern shared by Lei, Yurii and Wevyn and was a central issue in UNDP’s youth consultations.
Wevyn has experienced this unsafety numerous times. According to her, the dangers are higher when it comes to online activism.
While working with online platforms that provide youth with a space to engage such as Less Talk Kenya and Mutual Aid Kenya, she personally witnessed youth activists, especially women being threatened online. In her experience, online threats are made particularly during times of elections; when opportunities for change arise.
A UN survey of threats towards young people engaging in civic space from 2021 found that 78 percent of the young respondents had experienced some form of digital threats and 18 percent experienced this constantly. It also highlighted that the increased use of technology can make young people more exposed to online harassment and spark a rise in violations of data privacy and digital surveillance.
A clear recommendation to address these issues is to develop policies and legislation that protect human rights and security online. According to Mohamed there are several useful frameworks in place including the UN’s Secretary General’s roadmap for Digital Cooperation launched in 2020, which can be taken as an example or basis to promote security and safety online grounded in human rights.
 Youth Perspectives on Technology for Democracy (2021) Youth Perspectives on Technology for Democracy (sparkblue.org)
 United Nations (2021). If I Disappear: Global Report on Protecting Young People in Civic Space.
While Zureyka, Wevyn, Yurii, Mohamed, and Lei all work with different projects in different contexts, they share the conviction that digital technology, if managed well, can contribute to enabling democratic practice, civic engagement and promoting peace.
In the context of Peru, Zureyka advises policymakers to listen and observe the reality in different parts of the country. She notes that platforms like Redpública, which provide a space for young people and civil society organizations to connect and crowdsource ideas for public policy, can be valuable tools for policymakers to better understand the needs of the community.
The young leaders further call for young people from diverse backgrounds to be included in decision-making processes as well as in the development of digital solutions and approaches. As noted by Lei, if young people are not part of the decision-making process, the future regulations and policies regarding AI and digital technologies may not adequately represent the emerging users of digital technologies, such as Gen Z. This includes making sure that youth are included in all phases of the development of digital solutions and initiatives – from the design to the evaluation – and to the governance of digital initiatives. Such efforts imply fostering greater collaboration with tech companies and learning institutions and promoting co-ownership, co-creation, and co-evaluation.
The story reflects inputs based on interviews with the five young leaders as well as findings from UNDP’s youth consultations and project work undertaken as part of UNDP’s Tech for Democracy project and the Sustaining Peace During Electoral Processes project and with support by the UNDP Youth Global Programme.
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With support from the Government of Denmark, UNDP’s Tech for Democracy project brings voices, experiences, ideas and solutions from the Global South, with an emphasis on young people and LNOB principles into the broader Danish-led Tech for Democracy initiative. The UNDP SELECT project, supported by the EU, aims to establish an evidence base to support electoral practitioners in preventing and mitigating election related violence. The project includes a specific Youth Participation work stream that focuses on topics related to youth, peace and security, electoral support, and inclusive political processes. The UNDP Youth Global Programme has promoted youth empowerment for sustainable development and peace since 2016.