Can You Hear Us Now? Technology Aiding Democracy In Africa

Can You Hear Us Now? Technology Aiding Democracy In Africa

Technology is helping Africans, via their burgeoning cell phone use, become increasingly connected to and critical of their governments, according to a CNN opinion piece.

Mobile phones are amplifying the voices of marginalized communities and helping citizens hold their governments accountable, said Loren Treisman, executive director of Indigo Trust, a U.K.-based foundation supporting technology-driven projects in Africa that stimulate social change.

For citizens to actively participate in democracy, it is critical they can access information on parliamentary proceedings and elected representatives, Treisman said in the CNN report. To that end, U.K. tech charity MySociety partnered with local organizations across Africa to build sites like Mzalendo in Kenya and Odekro in Ghana, which give citizens to access information about parliamentary proceedings and their elected representatives, rate their elected officials and gain a better understanding about government’s inner workings.

In South Africa, The Open Democracy Advice Center has created a platform where citizens can submit Freedom of Information requests. An online data repository enables journalists, analysts and campaigners to use this information to hold governments accountable and campaign for improved service.

In Nigeria, a simple application created by developer Pledge 51 enables citizens to access their constitution by mobile phone and has been downloaded more than 750,000 times.

In the impoverished Khayelitsha township of Cape Town, residents submitted around 3,000 reports on issues like poor sanitation, electricity and transport to the Lungisa platform from their mobile phones, Facebook and the web. Most of the issues were resolved by the city council.

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In Northern Uganda, the brutal Lord’s Resistance Army conflict displaced hundreds of thousands of people, leaving infrastructure and service delivery in dire straits. Only a few health centers have been established and corruption is commonplace.

CIPESA created a platform populated with information on health programs implemented in the region and citizen journalists can submit reports, photos and audio footage describing the real situation on the ground, whilst Voluntary Sector Accountability Committees established by WOUGNET use a similar platform to report corruption and poor governance. The data collected is being used by non-governmental organizations to hold government accountable and advocate for improved services.

With youth being the biggest consumers of technology, platforms are being developed that enable them to become more actively engaged. In Kenya, Youth Agenda is using an SMS platform to encourage youth to vet their leaders according to policies and attributes instead of along tribal lines. The platform is also used to gauge political opinion. Feedback is collated into reports and fed to the government, giving youth a voice and allowing them to contribute to the development of policy.

Until 2009, Kibera – one of the world’s largest slums and home to more than 250,000 people – appeared as a blank on online maps, making it easy for government to ignore the citizens, the report said. Map Kibera equipped young activists with GPS-enabled phones to map the region, part of a wider program that empowers youth to raise awareness and advocate for change.

Technology apps can be developed anywhere and what’s exciting about many of these initiatives is that they’re being devised locally, Treisman said in the report. Technology innovation hubs are springing up across the continent. These state-of-the-art facilities enable technologists and social activists to access high-speed internet, events and mentoring, as well as create a collaborative environment that galvanizes the tech community. This is beginning to have a significant effect on the number and quality of projects being developed locally.

Some of these hubs such as Jozi Hub in Johannesburg and Co-Creation Hub in Lagos, Nigeria, have targeted programs to support transparency initiatives, thus catalyzing the process.

Technology isn’t a panacea for all social problems, Treisman said. At times, it isn’t locally available or governments lack capacity to respond to issues being reported. However, when combined with well-devised programs, its power to reach the previously unreachable and to bring the voices of citizens closer to government makes it a significant contributor to the process of ensuring that governments best serve the interests of their citizens.