USAID’s Timely Digital Strategy

Recognizing the Need to Confront the Global Spread of Digital Authoritarianism

The U.S. Agency for International Development recently unveiled a new digital strategy—detailing plans to leverage technology in foreign aid investments to support countries’ transition to self-reliance. The new approach comes as the United States reconsiders how to answer authoritarian sharp power and promote American values during the pandemic.

“Now more than ever, as the global development community works to deliver life-saving assistance and relay crucial information in the face of the pandemic of COVID-19, the role of digital technology is undeniable,” the agency wrote. The plan aims to focus on new foreign aid investments to support free and open digital infrastructures which can drive economic growth, reduce poverty, and transform governance and critical sectors like healthcare and agriculture.

The new strategy focuses on two complementary objectives. First, improving “measurable development and humanitarian assistance outcomes through the responsible use of digital technology in USAID’s programming”. Second, strengthening “the openness, inclusiveness, and security of country-level digital ecosystems.” The latter goal is aimed to counter the international trend of digital authoritarianism and growing threats posed by the People’s Republic of China’s global deployment of technical infrastructure through the Belt and Road Initiative.

Background on USAID and the New Digital Strategy

As background, USAID spends approximately $20 billion annually on international investments. The Administration’s FY2021 budget request for the State Department and USAID totaled $41 billion, including “$19.6 billion in funds USAID fully or partially manages.” Since 2018, USAID has been undergoing a transformation aimed to reform the agency’s operations and programs to “effectively advance national security and support host country partners on their journey to self-reliance.”

The new strategy is the latest step. Under the new plan, USAID will use technology to measure investment’s outcomes and also ensure: “all countries have robust digital ecosystems that are open, inclusive, secure, and of benefit to all.”  The strategy cites the global digital divide to make the case for new investments in digital infrastructure—pointing to the 4 billion people living in developing countries without access to the Internet. USAID also warns about gender inequality, citing statistics that women are 43 percent less likely to use the Internet and 14 percent less likely to own a mobile phone than men.

How this digital divide is closed has serious implications for the fate of global security, democracy, human rights, and individual freedom. “Authoritarian governments and malign actors can wield digital tools to suppress political dissent, quash individual freedoms, limit competition in the marketplace, or take advantage of individuals who lack digital literacy,” USAID warns. Adding that “regimes can deploy digital tools as instruments of digital intimidation, surveillance, theft, and control—effectively silencing, rather than amplifying, critical voices.”

Answering China’s Sharp Power Strategy and the Spread Digital Authoritarianism

While not mentioning China, USAID’s new digital is clearly aimed to counter Beijing’s sharp power strategy and the spread of digital authoritarianism.

National Endowment for Democracy’s Christopher Walker coined the term “sharp power” to describe how authoritarian states use instruments of national power to censor, manipulate, and coerce independent institutions within democratic governments in a manner that advances the authoritarian government’s interests.  For example, Walker pointed to the partnership between the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and China-backed media organization as an example of Beijing’s use of sharp power to undermine media independence. “The ABC management had agreed to eliminate news and current-affairs content objectionable to Beijing from the respected ABC Mandarin-language service, both in Australia and overseas,” Walker explained.

The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission reported on this trend in its annual report to Congress last November: “In 2019, China continued to export methods, technologies, and principles of internet governance that improve foreign governments’ ability to censor and surveil their own populations.”

China uses foreign investment in developing counties’ technology infrastructure to advance this strategy. Stanford University Professor Larry Diamond described the PRC’s ‘digital silk road’ strategy in his 2019 book Ill Winds:

 “China is enlisting its giant telecom companies (such as Huawei) in modernizing the information infrastructure of countries across Africa and Asia. Their assistance can include upgrading the mobile-phone spectrum and laying high-speed, fiber-optic lines. But this means that China’s technological leaps into the digital surveillance of its own citizens may well be baked into the systems that it builds abroad—and passed along to other authoritarian regimes.”

USAID’s new digital strategy promises to counter digital authoritarianism. The agency will now focus on investments and support partnerships with private sector stakeholders to build, operate, and maintain digital infrastructure and systems in a manner consistent with American values.

The future of global democracy and internet freedom in the 21st century will be decided by the race to build and maintain global information technology infrastructure, including the current transition to 5G networks. Expanding an open, global digital ecosystem has the potential to improve lives around the world, empower women and other disenfranchised groups, and strengthen government accountability. Allowing the unchecked spread of digital authoritarianism will accelerate the decline of democratic governance around the world.

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