Working Together to Combat the Growing Threat of Malign Influence: The International Community’s Response to Preserving Development Outcomes

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Malign actors, such as the governments of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Russian Federation, are increasingly seizing opportunities to influence international development outcomes – particularly the advancement of democratic and economic progress in established and emerging democratic states. These actors use a variety of methods to achieve their goals, including economic coercion, information warfare, military intervention, and support for authoritarian regimes.

  • Economic coercion is the use of economic power to pressure other countries to adopt their preferred policies. For example, China has used its economic ties to Africa to pressure countries to vote in its favor in the United Nations.[1]
  • Information warfare refers to the use of disinformation and propaganda to undermine democratic institutions and promote the interests of malign actors. For example, Russia has been accused of using social media to spread mis- and disinformation about the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
  • Military intervention includes the use of military force to intervene in other countries’ affairs, often with the goal of destabilizing or overthrowing democratic regimes. The most obvious example of the use of force to exert malign influence is the Russian Federation’s ongoing and illegal invasion of Ukraine.  But this is by no means the first such effort by Russia.  For example, in 2014, Russia seized the Crimean Peninsula in Ukraine and sent troops into eastern Ukraine to support pro-Russian separatists, and also provided the separatists with weapons and other military support. This led to the overthrow of the elected governments in those regions and to Russia seizing control of those territories, declaring them to be part of Russia.
  • Support for authoritarian regimes around the world most often takes place through the provision of financial and political support. This support helps to legitimize these regimes and make it more difficult for them to be held accountable for their actions. For instance, China has provided significant financial support to the Government of Sudan, which has been accused of human rights abuses.

In addition to these traditional methods, malign actors are also using digital technologies to repress dissent and control the flow of information. This is known as digital authoritarianism. Digital authoritarianism is a growing threat to democracy and human rights. For example, the Chinese government uses a vast network of surveillance cameras, facial recognition technology, and other biometrics to track the movements of its citizens. This surveillance is used to identify and detain dissidents, and also serves as a deterrent to those who might want to challenge the government. Additionally, the Government of the PRC blocks access to websites and social media platforms that it deems to be a threat to its authority. This includes websites that are critical of the government, as well as websites that promote religious or political dissent.

Donors like the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the U.S. Department of State, among others, are working to counter malign influence by:

  • Supporting civil society organizations that promote democracy and human rights;
  • Strengthening the rule of law and democratic institutions;
  • Promoting media freedom and countering disinformation; and
  • Building the capacity of governments to respond to digital authoritarianism.

In addition to these donor-funded efforts to curb the impact of malign actors, communities across the globe are joining together to tackle these threats, demonstrating widespread desire for progress. As holder of the G20 presidency in 2022, the Government of Indonesia established the Reliable Data Flow and Free Flow in the Digital Economy Working Group (DEWG). The DEWG seeks to find solutions to growing issue of data localization restrictions enacted by countries around the world (led by China and India), which have national security implications and serve as obstacles to cross-border data flows, stymying citizens’ access to the digital world and negatively impacting economic growth. In Zambia, local organizations are developing a platform for the government to engage with civil society and the private sector to strengthen digital transformation efforts, advocate for laws and policies that respect human rights, and promote responsible and safe use of technology. The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), a law passed by the European Union, sets out strict rules for the collection, use, and storage of personal data. It applies to all organizations that process personal data of individuals located in the European Union, regardless of where the organization is located. The GDPR includes provisions that specifically address the risks posed by malign actors, such as requirements for organizations to report data breaches to data protection authorities and to implement appropriate technical and organizational measures to protect personal data.

In response to this growing threat and the need to better understand the influence of malign actors, DevTech in collaboration with local organizations, activists, and donors – including USAID and the State Department, are monitoring and assessing malign influence to better defend democratic values, protect and advance democracy in the digital age, and strengthen emerging democratic states. By undertaking research to understand the strategies and tactics of malign actors, we can better identify opportunities to promote democracy and human rights. Moreover, by learning how malign actors are using digital technologies to undermine democracy, we can also develop strategies to counter these efforts.

Under the Reform Analytics project, DevTech worked hand in hand with the State Department’s Office of the Coordinator of U.S. Assistance to Europe, Eurasia, and Central Asia to actively monitor and assess security opportunities and threats and malign influence across 17 countries in the region. This included the influence of Russian government support and the efforts of the PRC to disrupt law enforcement and border security reforms, as well as the influence of malign actors to provide support for youth military education programs. Specifically, DevTech developed a sustainable foreign assistance analytical framework that included a Resilience to Malign Influence (RMI) Index. The RMI Index is structured by reform outcomes, risks, and resiliencies according to various key categories, including, among others, democratic reform; energy security; political and economic integration with malign actors; media resilience; and aggression, conflict, and terrorism. The taxonomy is comprised of 59 open-source, third-party indicators that monitor imports and exports as well as levels of financing to and from Russia and the PRC, internal and regional political instability, cybersecurity, and levels of corruption.

In partnership with USAID and 40 of its partner countries, DevTech is leading a Digital Democracy and Digital Repression assessment to uncover global trends and patterns as well as opportunities emerging from the global landscape. Specifically, this research aims to (1) increase the Agency’s understanding of trends and behaviors that may threaten or advance democratic values and human rights, (2) map the key actors that may influence or be influenced by the advancement of digital democracy, (3) pinpoint ‘wicked problems’ or underlying assumptions that one should be aware of when attempting to advance digital democracy, and, (4) garner lessons learned and identify windows of opportunity to advance digital democracy. As a result of this analysis, DevTech will contribute to the design and development of this relatively new area of focus, including by developing a set of indicators to monitor and inform programming moving forward, and helping to increase the Agency’s capacity to support USAID Missions to effectively implement Digital Democracy programs.

While these efforts demonstrate promising developments critical to protecting democracy and human rights around the world, much work remains. Only by working together with like-minded partner countries can we confront the rising influence of malign actors to prevent these threats and promote a more just and secure world.

[1] To learn more about the PRC’s use of economic coercion in the developing world, listen to the DevTalks podcast episode, “Debt Distress in the Developing World with Rafael Romeu, Dan Runde, and Anka Lee.”

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