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Corinne Momal-Vanian, Director, United Nations Information Service Geneva during the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, Palais des Nations. Thursday 17 October 2013. Photo by Violaine Martin

Keynote Address by Corinne Momal-Vanian at the 2021 People Dialogue Festival

Corinne Momal-Vanian, Executive Director of the Kofi Annan Foundation, took part in Session 2 of The People Dialogue Festival in Nairobi, on September 15th, 2021.

Dear Friends,

It is a pleasure to join you today, and I am delighted to spend the International Day of Democracy in the company – even virtual- of activists, politicians, and individual Kenyans who share our commitment to democracy.

Let me first commend the Centre for Multiparty Democracy for organising this year’s People’s Dialogue Forum under very difficult circumstances. This is a vital platform.

The Kofi Annan Foundation has supported elections in different regions, and exchanges such as the Forum are rare.

This is unfortunate- the need for citizens, political parties and other stakeholders to gather and discuss the state and strength of democracy is more important – and necessary – than ever today.

Over the past two years, we have watched leaders in many countries use the pandemic to consolidate executive power, reverse democratic gains, and harass or target opposition parties and civil society.

Media freedoms have been curtailed, information has been tightly controlled, and in some instances, elections have been postponed or cancelled unnecessarily, undermining the legitimacy of those in power.

Unfortunately, the attacks on our democratic values, norms and processes occurred as these were already questioned and threatened. There is a perception among many that democracy has simply not delivered, and there is frustration with some elected officials who flex democratic credentials in public yet act very differently in private.

If we consider events over the past 12 months, the vulnerability of democracy is all too obvious.

Look at Myanmar. One of Mr. Annan’s last diplomatic engagements was in that country, where he worked closely with Aung San Suu Kyi and her administration to help deliver positive change in Rakhine State.

Yet earlier this year, her democratically elected government was overthrown by an unelected cabal of military leaders seeking only to protect and enrich themselves, even at the cost of the nation.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban toppled the civilian regime and ended decades-long efforts at nation-building and democracy- promotion.  This is not the time nor the place for an autopsy of international engagement in Afghanistan. Let me just say that if more emphasis had been placed on building an inclusive and representative democracy, improving the integrity of electoral processes, rooting out corruption and delivering more services to marginalized populations, the outcome may have been different.

To these examples, we can add coups in Guinea and Mali, the assassination of the Haitian President, and efforts to overthrow the results of last year’s American Presidential elections.

Yet against this dismal backdrop, one thing is clear– citizens’ aspirations for open, democratic democracy remain undimmed, as shown by poll after poll – including those conducted on this continent by Afrobarometer.

Social media and new technologies can play an instrumental role in delivering on these aspirations.

Kofi Annan was a life-long advocate for democracy as the system most able to deliver development and peace, but he argued that technology does not stand still, and neither should democracy.

In 2018, he convened a dozen prominent figures with different expertise to identify steps to strengthen electoral integrity in light of technical innovations.

The Commission was composed of former political leaders, academic experts, members of the private sector, and included Ory Okolloh of Kenya.

They assessed the challenges to democracy and elections posed by social media and proposed a series of recommendations to address them.

These are applicable everywhere. After all, nearly all elections are now affected by efforts to manipulate the digital space. But this is particularly problematic in countries where institutions are perhaps less robust, or without a long tradition of rule of law.

As for Kenya, you are of course much better placed than I am to discuss the impact of such technologies and tactics, but allow me to draw attention to some of the recommendations that may resonate here.

First, the challenge of disinformation.

This has been exacerbated in recent years and has extended far beyond politics or elections. Some of the most heinous and dangerous disinformation has targeted the COVID-19 vaccines for instance.

The Commission argued that the scope of online disinformation is so large that only a collaborative network of actors can have an impact.

They pointed to successful initiatives which convened journalists, fact-checkers, the technology platforms, the electoral commission and civil society to collaborate in identifying and correcting electoral-related disinformation.

Such networks are being replicated across the world, and there are perhaps approaches that can be applied here in Kenya.

Second is the impact of unaccountable online speech, which is increasingly raising tensions around elections. Nearly every single recent election I recall has involved some attempt by an anonymous online account to steer hate and divisions, question official results and incite voters to violence. Some have succeeded, others thankfully not.

The Kofi Annan Commission argued that political candidates can play a greater role in reducing tensions. It proposed the widespread adoption of a pledge for online behaviour, which I understand our colleagues from the Alliance of Democracies will expand on shortly.

Another worrying recent trend is the emergence of new transnational political consulting firms. These include the legions of international pollsters, advertisers, PR consultants and others who are hired by political parties and do not hesitate to wreak havoc in the name of securing a win, with little consideration for the long-term impact.

You are naturally familiar with Cambridge Analytica. Yet while many cite Kenya as the testing ground for Cambridge Analytica, they may be unaware that Kenya is also where M-Pesa and Ushaidi were developed.

You have a young and technology-savvy population, 83% of whom have access to the internet and who understand the need to reassert and improve fundamental democratic principles. You also have a vibrant civil society and robust institutions.

Kenya is one of the countries that give me hope, therefore, that we are not at the sole mercy of Big Tech or social media platforms to act. There is much we can do together.

If however, you do find yourself succumbing to pessimism, I urge you to turn your eyes to the young generation of democratic activists and political leaders.

With our partner the United Nations Democracy Fund, and to mark the International Day of Democracy, we have produced a series of videos capturing some of the views of young democracy activists across the globe.

The sophistication of their social media tactics, their mastery of new communications has given them the ability to apply the lessons of Hong Kong and Santiago to the streets of Yangon, Minneapolis, Lagos and Bogota.

So I remain optimistic that in the hands of the next generation, social media can once again become a powerful force to engage, educate and empower voters, and deliver elections with integrity.

Thank you.

Corinne Momal-Vanian is the Executive Director of the Kofi Annan Foundation.