A small grant can be a powerful tool for change, especially in the Pacific, where rapidly increasing connectivity and the lowering of costs associated with access to the digital space have been a game-changer.

Increasing access, however, is not a panacea, and improvements to the region’s ICT infrastructure also see the Pacific grappling with the use of digital tools in ways that inhibit, rather than promote, citizen participation, empowerment and human rights.

Disinformation, scams, and technology-facilitated abuse, for example, threaten to undermine that important progress that has been made in connecting the Pacific.

With support from the European Union, the UN Development Programme's (UNDP) Pacific Office in Fiji has therefore undertaken a groundbreaking initiative to promote digital democracy and empower citizens across the Pacific region.

The project deploys a twin strategy to advance these central aims: first, by conducting comprehensive Digital Readiness Assessments, the project baselines the level of digital wellbeing, digital divides, and access to important opportunities and services for Pacific citizens.

Second, through the establishment of a Low-Value Grants scheme and a comprehensive capacity building programme for Civil Society Organizations (CSOs), the Pacific Digital Democracy Initiative (PDDI) promotes understanding of online safety while combatting hate speech, technology-facilitated abuse, and disinformation.

The project also provides grant recipients with financial and project management training to empower them to independently manage grant funding.

Ultimately, the goal is to not only ramp up CSO capacity, but to also boost their capabilities in managing this complex and important space.

Challenges and Insights from across the Pacific

Recognizing that Pacific Island Countries face common challenges, including a lack of capacity to understand the impact of digitalization on their communities and the 'tyranny of distance', the project brought together key members from CSOs in the target countries for tailored training workshops. These workshops provided a platform for participants to share their experiences, learn about online safety, and gain knowledge and resources to tackle online abuse.

In each of the implementation countries, participants shared that, while technology-facilitated abuse and cyberbullying were evident in their communities, there was a lack of terminology and language to identify these issues.

Communities were acutely aware of the growing connectivity and level of digitalization but lacked understanding of mechanisms for recourse in cases of online abuse and disinformation. This raised concerns about the potential loss of cultural ways and traditional customs in the digital wave, particularly in reconciling traditional accountability mechanisms like kastom in Solomon Islands with the benefits that digitalization can bring.

Participants also noted that the added layer of technology-facilitated abuse has exacerbated the existing fight to eliminate violence against women and children. While the effects of technology-facilitated abuse are felt in most cases by women and girls, participants noted that this is an issue common to of relevance to all Pacific Island Countries.

Insights from Digital Readiness Assessments

PDDI’s Digital Readiness Assessments (DRAs), that provided a cross-cutting, hybrid qualitative-quantitative analysis, baselined our approach. The DRAs emphasized the importance of multi-stakeholder engagement, including governments, civil society, and the private sector, in ensuring that everyone benefits from digital advancement.

Building on these findings, the Pacific Digital Democracy Initiative's collaboration with CSOs through the Low-Value Grants scheme directly addresses the challenges and opportunities identified in the DRAs.

UNDP's Response and Low-Value Grants

In response to the challenges and findings, the UNDP PDDI issued a Call for Proposals, inviting CSOs to submit applications on how to combat online abuse and promote online safety. A broad range of CSOs were selected as recipients of the UNDP Low-Value Grant totaling over US$400,000, demonstrating the EU and UNDP's commitment to promoting digital empowerment within CSOs and their communities.

The term low-value, in the case of these grants, is somewhat misleading. These grants are supporting capacity building and the building of a cohort of thousands of digitally savvy people across hundreds of communities.

The following graphic illustrates the thematic areas around which the selected CSOs will implement their own projects.

Shared Vision of Empowerment

The selected CSOs share a common vision of empowerment, aiming to equip individuals, especially marginalized groups, with the skills and knowledge needed to navigate the digital landscape safely, thereby assisting to end the digital divide. Their strategies include awareness campaigns, community dialogues, roundtable discussions and workshops, tailored to address the unique needs of their constituencies.

Impact of Grant Management and Digital Literacy Training

Think back to the very first time you connected to the internet? Was there somebody there to talk you through things, to help you navigate your way through the minefield that is the digital world? And if not, how helpful would a helping hand have been?

The recent Grant Management and Digital Literacy training provided by the project team proved to be a powerful catalyst for change. Most importantly, grantees are now empowered to address community issues more effectively, able to make real change within their local communities.

‘More than just a project’

Team Leader – Effective Governance and Inclusive Growth with UNDP Pacific Office, Rustam Pulatov, said it best:

"The Pacific Digital Democracy Initiative is more than just a project, it’s a movement to rebalance how digital works have been done as of late. It’s a movement toward a brighter, more inclusive digital future for the region, a future where we use digital for good. By empowering communities with digital skills, knowledge, and resources, we are laying the foundation for a society where every voice is heard, every story is told, and every person can thrive in the digital age.”

This is just the beginning of the project. We call upon governments, organizations, and individuals across the Pacific to join us in this transformative journey. Together, let us build a future where the power of technology is harnessed for the greater good, where no one is left behind, and where the Pacific stands as a beacon of digital democracy for the world to follow.