The exercise of citizenship in the years gone by has mainly consisted of door-to-door meet and greets with politicians, rallies, protests and public meetings, but today the world is a digitally driven space, and the way people interact with their society is ever evolving. This is no different when we examine democratic societies and how citizens interface with governance systems. Today, we see world leaders such as the President of the United States of America, using platforms like Twitter to share his position on global matters, and if we zoom into Belize on the global stage, we see our Commissioner of Police using the Facebook space to update the citizenry on issues of national security. This then begs the question, how are the citizens using this technological space to advance and fill the gaps of participation to allow power to flow both ways in the decision-making process, thus enabling the private citizen to not only receive information from the political directorate but also share information to influence public decisions?
This is what the Civic Fellowship Program: Birth of a Citizen seeks to achieve. The program is the brainchild of VP Consulting and Twocanview, which aim to educate citizens and build leadership capacity while cultivating a network of innovative and ethical changemakers across racial, gender and socioeconomic lines in Belize. Through the program, 75 fellows from across the diaspora, including Barbados, Jamaica and the United States, will be taken over the course of 9 months into remote villages in Toledo and will engage in 10 mentorship talks with Belizean leaders in the spheres of law, advocacy and civil organizations— all of which will be done through the use of technology! It’s a two-prong approach of critical dialogue and decisive action to address some of the issues affecting the contemporary Belizean society today. In the world of a pandemic that has forced us to be together apart, the team has seamlessly employed technology to carry out the program. Partnerships are at the centre of the Birth of a Citizen Initiative, and a major partner is Digi.
Digi is currently Belize’s largest telecommunications company, with its roots starting back in 1902 when a manual line was set up that linked Belize City with Consejo Village in the Corozal District in northern Belize, and since then this company has made major investments in closing the digital divide in Belize. I spoke with Marconi Leal, General Manager of Customer Experience and Consumer Sales, who told me that the hallmark of the work has been the accessibility to internet services. He pointed to Digi’s Destination Greatness Program, which was the first to introduce the 4G LTE Advance network in the region, and the rolling out of the national broadband plan which was an investment of $150 million Belize Dollars. Leal says that just 10 years ago, Belizeans would be paying $100 for one Meg of internet speed, and today they pay that same price for 60 Megs of internet. Digi has also had a partnership with the Government of Belize(GOB) through which schools used to get 8 Megs of internet services, which then grew to 130 Megs, and now stands at 500 Megs. The partnership with GOB has also produced the DigiLearn program, which saw 3000 students get laptops to be able to access online learning. They have also led on another collaborations with GOB, including the Wifi in the Park program, which offers free internet to the public at eight public park locations across the nation.
Even with all that, Leal admits that there’s still some long-term work to be done to further penetrate more rural areas, which he says is dependent on factors such as population density and competition, and would be a progressive move to further close that gap in technology connectivity for Belizeans. In speaking about the Civics Fellowship Program: The Birth of a Citizen, Leal says it was a matter of corporate social responsibility to support a program, albeit new, that contributes to the country’s sustainable development, especially one that focuses on building the leadership capacity of youth. The partnership sees Digi donating to the participants of the program 8 GBs of data monthly for the course of the program to power their devices so that they are able to participate without barriers to connectivity.
As a fellow myself, I find that it is wildly important to have young people be able to understand that even with all the work of people’s movements and democratic participation that has been done, we too have an active role to play in the future we build. A future that is not only our own, but also belongs to generations beyond us. Being able to understand the intricacies of our political existence will give us the confidence, the knowledge and the grit to be able to positively change the Belizean society on the basis of a shared vision.
Find out more about the programme here: https://civicfellowsbz.com/