The Key Role of Mentors in Preparing Internet Governance Leaders in Latin America
By Alejandra Erramuspe, LACNIC Líderes Program mentor.
For the past three years I have had the privilege of participating as a mentor in the LACNIC Líderes Program, an initiative that offers financial support and mentorship to candidates so that they can conduct research on critical Internet Governance (IG) issues in Latin America, as they are perceived from within their respective communities.
In my opinion, the Líderes Program’s value lies in its role in generating knowledge and research in the field of Internet Governance. Indeed, I believe that the region needs many more initiatives of this type, more funds for research on the current state, opportunities, challenges, and major issues concerning areas such as citizens’ appropriation of —and relationship with—technologies on a small community scale.
As an example, in one of the projects that I am currently monitoring, the researcher’s proposal was to conduct a workshop on fact checking in a Wayú community in northern Colombia. The goal of her research is to work with local teachers to prevent misinformation and to ensure that the attendees themselves disseminate what they learn to the rest of the community.
It should be noted that the program’s objective is not to fund large-scale research or established researchers, but rather to offer an opportunity to young individuals at the beginning of their journey, or to local leaders or activists who face significant challenges in securing funding from other sources.
Another aspect worth stressing is the importance of generating knowledge within the region. While funding initiatives for research and knowledge production exist in the global north, the same cannot be said about our region, which is why we often end up consuming what is produced in other parts of the world. Because it is a human product, all information is biased. We must strive for a more equitable diversity of production sources and for these to include perspectives that address local realities, the experience of individuals in small communities, at the micro level. Another important reason for promoting the production of knowledge at the local level relates to language. Interestingly, I am currently working with a researcher whose focus is on understanding in what language machine learning and natural language processing systems “learn,” and this language is predominantly English. Generating content in languages such as Spanish and Portuguese, which are the two most widely spoken languages in the region, allows us to introduce diversity into the world of technology and into the production of knowledge, where the dominant language is English.
From a methodological point of view, our first contact with the projects is the prior review of all proposals and participant selection. This is done according to the criteria and considerations proposed by LACNIC, which brings transparency and consistency to the entire process. Based on each mentor’s individual assessments, LACNIC ranks the projects with the highest scores. The next step is to assign the projects to the person selected to serve as mentor for the study. This is where the journey with the mentees begins: I personally follow up with each researcher once a week to see how their work is progressing.
All proposals must be in line with the thematic areas defined by the program: Internet for All: Inclusion and Impact on Human Rights, Cybersecurity and Cybercrime, Risks of Internet Fragmentation, Models for Internet Public Policy Formulation, and Artificial Intelligence and Emerging Technologies. They must also meet some criteria that are common to all thematic areas: consistency in the definition of the problem, originality, and diversity (geographical, gender, sector), in other words, the research proposal itself must include the perspective of other sectors impacted by the topic.
All these variables are weighted, with some weighing more than others. The problems observed in the region are relevant, and we try to ensure that the voices of more relegated and less-heard communities and localities are present.
It should be stressed that the program offers limited funds to conduct a very concrete and specific research, to be executed within a limited time frame of up to three months. Based on my past experience, I understand that in the early stages of a research process we want to cover a broad scope; as the process unfolds and the field is explored, we often end up redefining this scope, which may sometimes diverge from the original. Thus, a key aspect is the viability of these projects: it is possible to have excellent initial ideas, but then the methodology may be challenging, and they can become difficult to execute.
In this sense, rather than providing thematic guidance, our role is to offer institutional methodological support. We leverage our experience and expertise to guide, and even contain, the unpredictable aspects of the research process. Ensuring the successful conclusion of the projects is a priority, hence the importance of monitoring progress and intermediate deliverables.
Moreover, it is important for researchers to see these micro-research opportunities as a step or a phase in their journey and to consider the possibility of continuing this process, expanding the scope or objectives, and increasing knowledge. In fact, another advantage of the Líderes Program is that these research projects can then apply for funding from other sources. Likewise, participation in this program provides participants with the chance to broaden their relationship with the regional Internet community, network, and gain access to other activities and events.
Once participants complete their deliverables, those who wish can apply to LACNIC’s Policy Shapers program. The first requirement is to take the Internet Governance course offered by the LACNIC Campus. Once candidates successfully complete this course, participants are selected by LACNIC with the collaboration of the mentors. Our contribution is substantial, as the mentoring process allows us to get to know each researcher, their potential, their needs, their enthusiasm for continued training and development. It is based on this experience that we evaluate their suitability for the subsequent stage. Finally, I believe it is important to highlight that programs such as Policy Shapers provide participants with the chance to become regional leaders. Latin America requires a community that continues to grow and become stronger, and which includes individuals who are committed to the development and evolution of Internet Governance.