The Fountain of Youth: Reviving Trust in Public Service

Colorful hands up - happiness or help concept

Author: Sharmishta Sivaramakrishnan

In 2020, our greatest predicted global risks were forecasted to be environmental degradation, health vulnerabilities like chronic diseases, breaches in cybersecurity, and increased political and economic polarization. From the Australian bushfires to the COVID-19 pandemic and the onset of a global recession, the threats we face in emerging and developed markets are more pronounced than ever.

Adding fuel to the fire, in December 2019, Australians reached a historic low in their trust in government. Meanwhile, Edelman’s Trust Barometer in the same year reported that in Singapore and China, while trust in government had increased, 76 percent of respondents felt change was more reliable coming from the private, not public, sector.

Dealing with a decade of new and exacerbated challenges will require re-instilling trust in our younger citizens.  It will implore us to welcome the birth of new leadership styles, inspired by more youthful generations’ preferences while learning from the legacy of incumbent governance processes.

So, how do we do this?

There is a lot of rhetoric out there about inspiring young people to run for public office, to invest in their countries through civic engagement, and to show up and vote during their elections. Despite these encouraging and important messages, we need to recognize the inherent innovation potential of the public sector and, mainly, how governments must evolve how they engage and involve young people. Considering young people an asset to more robust policymaking, governments can tailor and benefit from the ability of young citizens to be effective, public communicators.  The jargon of the public sector, coupled with often intricate, internal processes can make it difficult for the everyday citizen to decipher its true motivations. Investing in digital platforms that encourage more frequent communication between public servants and young people can result in a more open, timely, and constructive conversation.

In 2019, Singapore launched its SG Youth Action Plan. Moreover, Singapore’s Ministry of Community, Culture, and Youth (MCCY) recognized the willingness of young people to participate in online channels. It announced the launch of a new digital platform to conduct polls and cultivate interactive government-citizen discussions more often. In the words of Senior Minister Sim Ann, ‘the rise of digital technology and social media have accelerated changes in how youth produce and consume goods, services, and information, as well as how they relate to one another and derive meaning and identity.’ Forging online fora where young people can comment on, and challenge government decisions will provide a new way for youth to contribute direct insights on what they and fellow citizens would like to see. Replicating such digital platforms in other countries will encourage more open communication channels and infuse more transparency and trust in decisions affecting a country.

National governments in countries like ASEAN must also continue hiring younger civil servants to maintain high levels of trust between the citizenry and government. To make a government career more exciting and appealing for a young person, there needs to be a real push to incentivize them to join their civil service following their studies or academic training. At the same time, one must not forget the importance of pulling into experienced professionals in their late twenties or early thirties to think about transitioning into the government. To do so, governments need to think about how they promote meaningful success stories of interesting, creative, and open government initiatives. Coupling stronger storytelling with opportunities for immersion in government agencies will provide young people with a more realistic and insightful picture of what a civil service career entails. Minimizing the weight of government jargon and removing perceptions around vertical career progression as a mandate is crucial. Placing young people as secondees from the private sector or fostering the idea that a government job does not need to be something they are ‘sentenced to’ until the end of their careers will normalize the conversation around transitioning into public service as they seek to grow their skills and career experiences. In Norway, a new pension policy was rolled out last year to ensure that young people did not feel a transition from the private to the public sector or vice-versa would result in a loss in their pensions. In Indonesia, as a way to build solidarity among young Indonesian public servants, the Aparatur Muda platform was established. Led by young government officials in Indonesia, the platform provides a way for officials from different ministries to interact, share experiences, and develop skills. Moreover, it ensures that young people who choose to enter public service will be joined by a peer network that offers support, passion, and empathy.

For those who may not intend for a career in public service but are keen to participate in public life, youth parliaments and advisory councils offer a different means of engagement. In countries like Singapore, Cambodia, Malaysia, national youth councils serve as meaningful spaces for local youth alliances and networks. They concretize the means through which young leaders’ ideas are not only heard but also integrated into tangible programming and policies on a national level.

We must trace back to how our existing public service structures are evolving to fit a world where issues erupt with increasing frequency and fervor. In ASEAN, challenges to regional stability, economic prosperity, and, most importantly, citizen trust will only be met if we can bring in fresh perspectives to complement and evolve decades’ worth of tried-and-tested processes. This can only be accomplished by igniting our young leaders, encouraging them to speak up and sharing their future visions.

Disclaimer: Views expressed above are the author’s own.

Sharmishta Sivaramakrishnan works for the World Economic Forum and has served as a Youth Ambassador for World Summit Award since 2016. Sharmishta holds an undergraduate degree from The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs and a Master’s degree from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies. Sharmishta is a Singaporean citizen raised across the Middle East, Europe, South and Southeast Asia. Passionate about global governance, she is committed to strengthening the evolution of public leadership through cross-sectoral cooperation, activating youth engagement and innovating how intergovernmental agendas such as the Sustainable Development Goals can succeed.

What this Pandemic Can Teach Us


Author: Aleem Walji, Former Chief Executive Officer at Aga Khan Foundation U.S.A. Aleem has also held senior leadership roles at the World Bank and

While it’s too early to develop definitive policy prescriptions in the face of an unfolding global pandemic, there are things we can learn in real time from COVID-19 and our response to date.

Here are 11 that come to mind for policy makers, the private sector and civil society:

  1. The world is so interdependent that disease anywhere can create dis-ease everywhere. Go-it alone approaches don’t work and are dangerous in the face of a global scourge that transcends geographic boundaries, social and economic divides. Germs level the playing field and remind us that ensuring the health and wellbeing of every person is both morally right and in our collective self interest. His Highness the Aga Khan in 2010 remarked, “Almost everything now seems to ‘flow’ globally – people and images, money and credit, goods and services, microbes and viruses, pollution and armaments, crime and terror”. He alerted us then that none of us live on an island.

    An effective response to COVID-19 anywhere has to involve multiple stakeholders including Government, the private sector, civil society, faith-based groups, and multilateral organizations for starters. A coalition has to be multi-country, multi-sector and multi-year. While governance of such an alliance will not be easy, this is the moment to strengthen coordination and demonstrate how collaboration builds more resilient systems.

    National and International institutions like the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) have an outsized role to play at times of crisis precisely because their role is to share information and provide support as widely and quickly as possible in the interest of communities everywhere.

  2. Pre-emptive planning and disaster preparedness is the best medicine. Investing in strong health systems is a precondition to saving lives in the face of a health crisis. This means investing in epidemiology, early warning systems, data collection, analytics, and securing access to emergency supplies before they are needed. It means training doctors, nurses, and community health workers to respond to crises and building surge capacity when demand exceeds supply. Strong public health systems in Nigeria are just as important as Louisiana in a globalized world. We need to invest in both. While we shore-up expertise and strengthen local supply chains, we must also resource transnational institutions so they can respond quickly wherever they are needed. While we cannot prevent low-probability, high-impact events from happening, we can plan for them and minimize damage when they occur.

  3. Consistent messaging from leaders is critical to behavior change. At times of crisis, people understand the need for directive leadership and expect their leaders to level with them and make decisions based on the best information they have. It’s equally important to be clear on what we don’t know and not pretend to know all the answers and repeatedly change course. Crises are times to draw upon the best expertise we have wherever it lies and put aside divisive politics and grandstanding. This is when we put people above party and parochial interests. Behavior change is hard but citizens respond to clear and consistent messaging when so much is at stake. Our new normal will require new models to increase connectivity, retain human connection and protect our health.

    The potential for misinformation to spread as fast if not faster than the virus is real. Civil society, government, news and social media platforms need to work together to counter false narratives and ensure all people have access to timely and trustworthy information to inform their attitudes and behavior.

  4. Civil society institutions step up at times of crises. Necessity unlocks human innovation, creativity and the ability to develop local solutions to local problems. The most powerful lever a government can pull is enabling people-led institutions to problem-solve alongside public and private actors. Examples range from setting-up neighborhood food pantries to retrofitting scuba gear as ventilators to 3D printing masks, face shields, and emergency medical equipment. When people know what is needed, they step-up, innovate and bootstrap with the resources they have. Sometimes the best thing governments and funders can do is to frame problems clearly, set targets and invite solutions from anyone anywhere to be tested, adapted and scaled if they work.

  5. Government, business and civil society must work together to achieve what is best for society rather than narrow self-interests. Profit drives business behavior in capitalist societies but businesses led by enlightened self-interest realize that when citizens and societies falter, businesses lose customers, markets crash and long-term profits decline. Today, factories across the world are being repurposed to manufacture personal protective equipment, pharmaceuticals are collaborating to fast-track a vaccine, and philanthropies are working with the private sector to launch a therapeutic accelerator. In these moments, we pull together around total societal impact rather than parochial interests. Each group has a role to play in building a more resilient and inclusive society. The challenge is how to remember that lesson when we move to a new normal.

  6. Technology and Data are Enablers Not Solutions. Epidemiologists, immunologists,  and data scientists are modeling the spread of the virus in real time: what’s happening, where it’s happening, and what we must do to save lives by ‘flattening the curve’. Tech companies are deploying geospatial data and machine learning to ‘contact trace’ the virus and determine where it’s speeding-up and where it’s slowing down. But algorithms are only as good as the data they ingest. Data gaps and inaccurate assumptions limit our predictive capacity: think of the number of people not tested for COVID-19 globally, the challenge of testing in low-resource settings and what happens if recovery does not mean permanent immunity. Privacy concerns around sharing location-based information and developing disease registries are serious. Ethical considerations abound because technologies are embedded within broader systems of power. Our ability to channel them for good depends on the incentives and motivations of those who control them. Global and local civil society institutions must have a voice in determining what data is permissible to share in emergency situations and what constitutes overreach and intrusion now and in the future.

  7. Savings lives and saving livelihoods both matter. Choosing between lives and the economy is a false choice. We need both to survive and thrive. The first order of business has to be the preservation of life. It is both a moral imperative and essential for long-term economic and social well being. But livelihoods matter and people without jobs and income, without health insurance, benefits, and social safety nets cannot contribute to economic health. The Prime Minister of Pakistan recently warned, ‘we might save our people from Corona today but they will die of hunger tomorrow’. Public, private and social institutions need to strengthen safety nets while reigniting local enterprises and resuscitating businesses on life support. Small businesses create millions of jobs and urgently need financial assistance to weather the storm and strengthen their economic foundations. Further investment in health, education, livelihoods and civic institutions will be needed in the medium to long term as they are the surest pathway to prosperity over the long haul.

  8. Low paid workers are not low-skilled workers. The quiet heroes of this crisis are front line health workers but also grocery store, warehouse, and pharmacy staff, food delivery people, trash collectors, cleaners, mailmen and women, law enforcement officers, elderly caregivers, the list goes on. They are a fundamental rubric of our society. How do we ensure their health and wellness after the crisis passes? More than ever we appreciate teachers and how they shape the future of our children and our societies. As we all juggle work, childcare, and our children’s education directly, we can appreciate how the most vulnerable in our society do this everyday and have the fewest resources to do so. Building safety nets is essential to counter glaring inequality, vulnerability and exclusion in a post COVID world.

  9. Our challenges are interrelated and require systems approaches to solve them. Disease, climate, health and the economy are not discrete phenomena: they are interrelated. Biodiversity saves species but also enhances human health and quality of life. As more of our world is susceptible to drought, loss of land due to sea level rise and snowmelt, the spread of disease is accelerated and impacts our economic health. To fight pandemics, we need to understand the social, economic, and political consequences of the decisions we make, directly and indirectly, and the price we pay for short-term wins over long-term gains. Complex systems create interdependencies that are under-appreciated until crises strike. This is why we need integrated approaches and systems thinking to address our most complex problems.

  10. Fast-moving crises should remind us of the importance of countering long-term and slower-burning crises. Crises create new vulnerabilities but they also highlight and exacerbate existing vulnerabilities. Millions of New Yorkers will get food from more than 800 pantries in the months to come but 1.4m people depended on food assistance before the virus. Crises bring into high relief inequities in our society and provide fresh perspective on broken systems. We are already seeing the disproportionate impact on Black and Hispanic communities in the US. We live in a world where a $400 unexpected expense in the richest country on earth can plunge 100m people into poverty. More than 500m people may fall into poverty across the globe this year. Few governments can inject millions let alone trillion dollars of economic relief into their economies. What happens to our safety and security if COVID-19 overwhelms parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America preying upon weak health systems, poor governance, high population density and high rates of poverty? Unless we support these countries, the threat of viral rebound remains. Rapid, low cost and early testing comes to mind, self-triage, access to water and hand washing stations and thinking through what physical distancing and isolation looks like in slums and refugee camps. The fate of more than 70m refugees and internally displaced people will be impacted by how we prepare now. This is not a time for fiscal distancing as the virus will boomerang if we’re not vigilant.

  11. Crises give us permission to rethink and reshape our societies. The eruption we call COVID-19 presents an opportunity to reshape institutions and redirect resources with broader societal interests in mind. We can make different choices about the kind of world we want to live in. What are public goods and what happens when we define them too narrowly (eg who gets health insurance, paid leave or access to job retraining)? When it comes to public health, how much should we invest in preventative care and what resources should flow to the federal, state and local levels? What personal data should governments and the private sector control and under what conditions? Google recently made aggregate data related to human mobility publicly available for more than 100 countries. Should this continue post COVID and who decides?

    Are we prepared to confront the indirect costs of climate change given its health and economic consequences? When do global supply chains serve us and what are the strategic goods and services that we must be available quickly and locally (think PPEs, medical equipment, medicine and food)? Exponential technologies like 3D printing and blockchain can help secure local supply chains but how do we mitigate the risk of ‘un-infectable’ robots and AI displacing workers not equipped for a digital economy? These are fundamental questions to debate today and in the months ahead. Time and tragedy create rare opportunities to make different choices with the benefit of real life experience. Are governments, corporates and the social sector up to the challenge?

Our shared goal must be to build a more resilient global system composed of resilient nations and communities. That will require investing in emergency preparedness and response, building stronger civic-minded institutions to accelerate recovery, and recognizing the interrelated nature of the environment, health systems, social systems, and economic well being.

We are only as strong as the most vulnerable amongst us. We have to work across divides to build local and global systems that are more inclusive, flexible, and fair. 


Michael Levett, RIP

Michael Levett

By Daniel Runde

My friend and CSIS colleague, Michael Levett, died in his mid-70s over the weekend. A wonderful man who lived a truly interesting life, I feel cheated out of at least 15 years of friendship, and counsel.

Michael, a Californian, grew up in Los Angeles, went to UCLA and was editor of the newspaper there. He worked for the LA Times out of college for several years. He was active in Democratic politics in the late 60s and the 1970s. He volunteered or was paid staff on a number of Democratic and civil rights campaigns in California. Later, he worked for Lucas Films where he was a Vice President, contributing to the first three Stars Wars films (Episodes 4, 5, 6, of course) and the first Indiana Jones film. He knew George Lucas and all of the film stars and had wonderful stories about working with them. He helped developed the toys and commercial products that are associated with those films. Those toys were important totems of my childhood and of the childhoods of millions of other Generation Xers. I was fascinated about his pilgrimages to Bentonville, Arkansas to sell Wal-Mart on the idea of placing Stars Wars toys in each Wal-Mart. He also worked for a brief time for Dino DeLaurentiis, working on Dune and, I believe, Conan the Barbarian. Given his background, he was kind enough to see Once Upon a Time in Hollywood with me last September, a real treat.

Michael launched his career in Washington, D.C. a White House fellow in one of the inaugural classes. He was quite young when picked for this great honor. He worked in the Department of the Interior during the Nixon Administration. Always very liberal and idealistic, he loved being a White House fellow but perhaps the Nixon Administration was not the best “fit” for him. He stayed in close contact with his White House fellow alums and made lifelong friends.

At some point along the way, someone convinced him to move to Russia in the late 1980s. He believed that we needed to have dialogue with the Soviet Union and he voted with his feet. He organized rock music concerts and started a popcorn business in the Soviet Union becoming the “Orville Redenbacher of the Soviet Union.”

His experiences in Russia and his ties to Washington generated a phone call asking him to help run the Citizens Democracy Corps (“CDC”) in the mid-1990s. CDC was stood up as part of the Bush 41 Administration’s response to the end of the Cold War. It appointed a star board of American captains of industry and was funded largely by USAID at the beginning. CDC changed its name several times over the years and is now known as Pyxera Global. The original idea of CDC was: 1) private sector partnerships before these were common, 2) leverage the talents of volunteers at scale before this was “a thing” and 3) go where they were needed often to places that others would not go to. In the early and mid-1990s this meant the former Soviet Union and Poland including Central Asia, later this meant Iraq, Afghanistan and Africa. Michael spent at least 8 years travelling around the former Soviet Union, building partnerships with multinational companies, acquiring other NGOs, and diversifying CDC’s funding away from US Government funding. CDC, under Michael, were early adapters to leveraging the power of global supply chains for good, creating large scale volunteer programs tied to business activities for companies such as IBM, and creating new programming around the role of travel, tourism and hospitality as a driver of jobs and prosperity. Michael led CDC and its successor organizations for 15 years. Today Pyxera gets less than 20% of its money from the federal government and most from corporate sources.

In the early 1990s, he was the founding president of Business for Social Responsibility (BSR). Michael played a key role in mainstreaming “stakeholder” concerns including concepts such as “social license to operate” and “corporate social responsibility” when these ideas were very new and only had a toehold in the most progressive companies. Entire industries have sprung up because of the work of BSR championed and Michael pioneered. The recent statements by large investors and large business groups can be connected in a straight line from his work in the early 1990s.

At CSIS, Michael was a Senior Associate with the Project on Prosperity and Development for the last ten years. I saw or spoke with him at least every two weeks during that time. Given his experience and travel history, he was a constant resource for events and publications on a variety of international development topics. He brought a lot of ideas to the report we did in 2011 on development finance, titled Sharing Risk in a World of Danger and Opportunity. He also helped with a major report, Seizing the Opportunity in Public-Private Partnerships, that same year. In 2013, he was an advisor to a commission we did on the role of the private sector in development. At his instigation, we did a report on the travel, tourism and hospitality sector, Global Travel, Tourism, and Hospitality as a Strategic Sector for Development and Security. He served as an advisor to our task force on reforming and reorganizing U.S. foreign assistance in 2017, and he was a major part of our task force on confronting the global forced migration crisis in 2018, leading fact-finding missions to multiple countries. I have fond memories travelling with him to New York and Los Angeles various times. He traveled with some of my colleagues to Africa and elsewhere. His report on value chains, Maximizing Development of Local Content across Industry Sectors in Emerging Markets, is still read and is recognized as one of the few papers on this relevant and pressing topic. Offering his time and his talents to CSIS, Michael would provide comedic relief and adventure to everything he did. He took time to shepherd and share his experiences with young professionals at CSIS and throughout DC. He had strong, well-formed views and was wonderful to be around. He had a broad sense of the spiritual and the strong sense of what he thought was right or wrong and acted accordingly. Never far from a joke, Michael was a Mensch, and I am really going to miss him.

Is Digital Disrupting Development? Can technology be a force for Inclusion?


Author: Aleem Walji, Former Chief Executive Officer at Aga Khan Foundation U.S.A. Aleem has also held senior leadership roles at the World Bank and

Economic, political, and social exclusion are intertwined. When considering the rise of nationalism and xenophobia across the world, we know that lack of economic opportunity, globalization and the fear of automation contribute to our collective anxiety. Social unrest and instability are exacerbated by growing inequity and inequality.

Today, the richest one percent of the world own half the world’s wealth. Add to the mix disruptive technologies like artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotics, and bio-engineering (just to name a few), and you have a new and much more polarizing digital divide emerging. 

At the beginning of the twenty first century, we were obsessed with the idea that a digital divide would marginalize the most marginal. There are examples of this happening in many places but the catastrophe was largely avoided. What we didn’t fully appreciate was how quickly some technologies like the mobile phone and mobile networks would penetrate new markets, fall in price, and deliver services that benefit the rich and poor alike. It’s remarkable to consider the spread and speed of digital payments and financial inclusion in Kenya and Bangladesh, public service delivery through digital IDs through the India stack, and the use of remote sensing and AI to launch precision agriculture.

Having led efforts at, the World Bank, and the Aga Khan Foundation, I’ve learned that innovation thrives when constraints on private enterprises are lifted and governments are enabled by digital platforms, analytics, and data driven decision making. Technologies like AI can be drivers of economic, social and political inclusion rather than exclusion. But a more inclusive and tech-enabled model of development that moves us closer to realizing the UN Sustainable Development Goals will not happen by default. It will require forward-leaning policy makers, far-sighted investors and grant makers, civic-minded tech innovators and businesses, and a robust, digitally savvy civil society to work collaboratively for social and economic inclusion. 

Unless we are deliberate about ensuring that these benefits are accessible to the poor, they will be left further behind. A second generation digital divide could be much worse and affect many more people than the first. We have seen firsthand how robots reduce jobs in manufacturing and how repetitive tasks are replaced by machine learning in industrialized societies. But remote sensing and AI in Africa and Asia can also help farmers know where to plant, when to irrigate and when to harvest to increase their incomes. Fintech has provided millions of previously unbanked people access to financial services.

So what can we do today to ensure that social and economic dividends from fourth industrial revolution technologies (4IR) are human-centered and shared equitably within society? How can we build on and amplify early success with AI in agriculture and water management, natural language processing in education and personalized medicine? Here are some initial thoughts each of which require further attention and work:

  1. Governments must invest further in smart infrastructure. Universal broadband, reliable energy, mobile networks and access to data as a public good are foundational. Putting in place the right regulatory frameworks, governance and procurement mechanisms will catalyze private investment.
  2. Federal and state level government, the private sector and civil society must invest in skilling and re-skilling workers to prepare them for the future of work. Labor markets will shift constantly: skills and micro-credentialing may be more important than degrees. Vocational institutes and universities – many of which have not significantly updated centuries-old methods will need to re-think their roles in this ecosystem.
  3. Foundations, bilateral and multilateral institutions and impacts investors need to unlock capital, de-risk investments, incubate and accelerate new business models allowing more people access to basic services, markets, and opportunities.
  4. Multilateral institutions like the UN and the World Bank, bilateral donors and foundations need to mobilize a multi-stakeholder alliance to create a digital data commons making high frequency, subnational, granular and anonymized data related to achieving the SDGs a global public good.
  5. Leading tech companies need to role-model responsible business practices at the core of their business and not just through CSR. Business models need to be inclusive by design and consider gender, class, ethnicity and other differences between end-users.
  6. Think tanks and universities must interrogate what’s working to bring about social, economic and political inclusion. A responsible media can call attention to successful examples for policy makers, investors and civil society.
  7. Governments must enable social safety nets to protect the vulnerable who will not benefit from economic and social disruption that the 4IR will bring.
  8. Civil society must push governments and the private sector to ensure that the broader interests of society are foremost in our minds. Cyber security, data privacy and ownership, ethics and the threat of disinformation must be skillfully managed.


Perhaps it is time for a new social contract to emerge between citizens, businesses, and the state.

It is time we take a sober look at questions of equity and inclusion in society. Who stands to benefit most and how can we use the 4IR as a trampoline for inclusive and sustainable development? No institution can do this alone. It will take an ecosystem. It’s essential we act now in order to shape outcomes that are fair and equitable for all.

Shutting Down Digital Authoritarianism

Author: Rachel Abrams, Research Intern (Fall 2019), Center for Strategic and International Studies

A man darts across a busy street, taking advantage of the lack of traffic and capitalizing on the extra 30 seconds to justify a coffee before work. Minutes later, his panicked expression flashes on a billboard across the street, branding him as a jaywalker. His heart drops, and so does his social credit score. Although it sounds eerily familiar to the plot of a Black Mirror episode, this is actually a very real scenario in Rongcheng, China, where the city has implemented a social credit system, tracked by facial recognition, artificial intelligence, and vast quantities of personal data. This jaywalker (and others with low scores) can lose access to loans or potential promotions at work while model citizens (who donate to charity or do other good deeds that are arbitrarily determined) find themselves broadcasted at the City Hall or receive discounts on products. What is happening in Rongcheng is a real-world example of how digital authoritarianism is on the rise. This rise in authoritarianism is also being spread globally, with Chinese companies exporting their technologies to a number of governments, including Ethiopia, Ecuador, South Africa, Bolivia, Egypt, Rwanda, and Saudi Arabia. Their efforts have enabled authoritarian regimes to acquire digital tools for surveillance and control that they would not have the capability to develop on their own.

Digital authoritarianism, defined as using technology to enhance or enable authoritarian governance, has been a concern since the advent of the internet. However, as AI and other emerging technologies generate unparalleled amounts of data and new ways to harness it, authoritarian governments have managed to leverage a novel and efficient way to control their populations. Digital authoritarianism lets governments monitor, understand, and control their citizens far better than ever before, often at a reasonable cost. Most governments have access to huge amounts of data from tax returns, medical and criminal records, bank statements, location services on apps, and technologies that track biometric data and have facial recognition capabilities. Unbound by democratic principles like due process and the rule of law, authoritarian governments have no qualms about using that data for massive social control. These governments are also able to selectively censor information and public behaviors that may damage the regime while allowing for economically positive discourse and actions. China has become one of the major exporters of digital authoritarianism through state and private actors. It is important to note that many private firms around the world have exported dual-use technologies or technologies that can be used in both military and civilian spheres. However, due to the extremely close relationship between the Chinese state and its large technology companies, it is evident that Chinese firms are using these technologies in a way that aligns with state ideologies. For example, tools that inspect internet data to filter and block malware could be used to filter and censor online content, and CCTV cameras for security can be used for surveillance.

For the Chinese government, the idea of using technology to govern is not new. Once the Chinese government noticed technology was becoming a part of daily life, it realized it had a powerful new tool to both gather information and control culture, with the ultimate goal of making the Chinese people more “governable.” Several current Chinese initiatives, done by partnerships between government and Chinese tech companies, focus on harvesting data and using it to influence behavior. China’s use of digital authoritarianism to subdue and control its population while growing its economy challenges the theory that liberal democracy is the only means of achieving sustainable economic growth. In part, this is because there is a gap in understanding the proper and democratic use of new technologies that have emerged in the last generation that is getting exploited. Unless liberal democracies of the world come together and create a framework for data governance, authoritarian actors will continue to exploit this gap and build on the Chinese model to grow.

Technology is a core tenant of the Belt and Road Initiative, and China’s overall soft power strategy. The strategy has three components: first, digital power via tech-driven strength, “fore-power” via long-range planning and strategy, and third, sharp power via the regime’s ability to manipulate opinion abroad. China’s proliferation of dual-use technologies abroad illustrates how authoritarianism can spread. In Freedom House’s “Freedom of the Net” assessment, out of the 65 countries surveyed, 38 had installed Chinese telecom infrastructure (via companies like Huwaei or ZTE), 18 had installed AI surveillance infrastructure, and many countries had implemented a combination of the two. These technologies are being used both by governments to monitor their citizens, and for China to monitor governments; in January, it was reported that the IT-network in the African Union headquarters, which was built by China, had been secretly transmitting confidential data to Shanghai for five years. In many countries, including Zimbabwe, Singapore, and several Eurasian countries, Chinese companies are creating “Smart Cities” run by sophisticated surveillance systems composed of artificial intelligence and facial recognition, which allows governments to track civilian movements. Almost more importantly, representatives from 36 out of the 65 countries in the Freedom House list have had private training sessions with Chinese officials on their new technologies. In Uganda, Chinese employees helped hack into a political opponent’s personal Whatsapp so the regime could shut down his rallies before they started. Chinese actors are not only spreading technologies that could be misused but are also actively teaching governments how to use these technologies and spreading authoritarian values.

The United States needs to realize that if foreign governments start to see digital authoritarianism as a viable alternative to liberal democracy, they will feel no pressure to liberalize. The best way for democracies to stop the rise of digital authoritarianism is to prove by example that there is a better model for managing the internet that protects countries’ sovereignty and spurs economic growth. Overall, an ideal model for data governance should empower people and societies to make informed decisions about their data, protect individual privacy and civilian rights, and allow innovators, entrepreneurs, and service providers to share and use data freely as long as they abide by these protections. As the United States has historically benefited from having an open society that encourages innovation, growth, and design, instituting a data governance framework should not stifle its creators and companies.


While achieving a universally enforceable solution will require more time and consensus, there is a window of opportunity where the United States can leverage its commercial and economic ties with other countries to make smaller but meaningful gains in democratic data governance. This will begin with the U.S. government establishing a regulatory body and involving stakeholders outside of the traditional policy sphere, including lawyers, researchers, civil society, and advocacy groups, as well as representatives from technology companies, to ensure at-risk groups are not forgotten or discriminated against. This regulatory body should set guidelines that promote good data governance. Suggested guidelines could include:

1. Limit the Amount of Time Data is Stored and Reduce Collateral Information Collection

In the case of facial recognition technologies, the data should only be held for the time that it is needed, for example, in an ongoing police investigation, and faces captured by mistake should be blurred to protect individual privacy. Doing so will allay fears that the government is gathering data to monitor citizens, along with the added benefit of lessening the risk of these data being hacked or stolen by nefarious actors.

2. Restrict Data Sharing and Create Opt-out Policies

Similar to the idea of reducing collateral information collection, companies that share data need to be subjected to clear standards and must be able to justify why the sharing organizations need the data. Additionally, consumers must be aware that their data can be shared and either consent or opt-out of the process.

3. Ensure a Healthy Media Environment

The U.S. must learn from the 2016 presidential election and elections around the world and create standards for advertising and campaigning via social networks like those that exist in television and other media. For example, how the Federal Communications Commission requires that all political cable spots have a visual sponsorship identification.

Much of the conversation about digital authoritarianism focuses on the countries perpetuating it but also needs to focus on the companies that help enable it. A regulatory body specifically devoted to data governance could also be tasked with imposing sanctions and regulations upon these companies. Many U.S. companies have bowed to pressure to censor content on governments’ behalf in order to retain access to markets; in particular, Netflix currently complies with censorship requirements in China, India, and Saudi Arabia, and Apple, which fought the U.S. government to put backdoors in password-protected products, has deleted apps and built data centers that follow Chinese government requirements. Currently, companies like Facebook, Uber, and YouTube fall under the jurisdiction of the Federal Trade Commission, which is too overworked to handle the complexities that overseeing apps, and these tech giants entail. More importantly, many companies based in democracies create and export the very dual-use technologies that are being misused by authoritarian and authoritarian-leaning countries. The Trump administration took a stand against this by putting eight of the top Chinese surveillance and intelligence companies on a blacklist that forbids them to buy U.S-tech, citing the crisis in Xinjiang as their reason. This move sends a strong message in support of human rights and a stronger message to China about what they can and cannot get away with but is not a sustainable model for the future.

In its role as a world leader and champion of liberal democracy, the United States needs to set a new model for how to democratically govern data. By designating a regulatory body solely to matters of data governance and oversight, the U.S. will show the international community that there is an effective means of data use and governance that is not authoritarian in nature and provide a viable social and economic model to China. Additionally, by taking steps to regulate technology within its own borders, the United States will curb the lawlessness that is the tech industry and make long-overdue steps to creating a sustainable framework that promotes innovation and protects civilian rights.