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Tech for Transparency in Sub-Saharan Africa

Map via Transparency International. A score of 0 (darkest blue) indicates high corruption; a score of 10 (lightest blue) indicates low corruption.

With the exception of Botswana, Mauritius and Cape Verde, none of the countries in sub-Saharan Africa fall above the midway point of the 2009 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index, which measures how citizens perceive the level of government corruption. In its profile on the region (PDF), the organization writes that corruption can “undermin[e] political stability and well as the governments’ capacity to provide effective basic services…. In such a context, corruption levels can mean the difference between life and death.”

Civil society throughout the continent has been pushing for greater public sector transparency, and some governments are beginning to respond. Ghana's Ministry of Information recently announced the “Ghana Policy Fair 2010,” a showcase of government projects and policies open to public comment. In Cape Verde, the Núclea Operacional da Sociedade de Informação (NOSI), or Operational Nucleus of the Information Society, makes information on the government's financial activities accessible to citizens while allowing them to apply for a variety of civil services — birth and marriage certificates, for example — online. The Portal do Governo da República de Angola, performs similar services in Angola.

Civil society has also begun to move its transparency and accountability efforts online. These efforts are supported by a growing tech community in sub-Saharan Africa, though a widespread lack of access to information and communications technology (ICT) and a consequent lack of understanding of and interest in these tools constitute a significant challenge to their success.

How Africans are using technology

Despite low rates of Internet and mobile phone penetration compared to the rest of the world, sub-Saharan Africa is home to a vibrant community of entrepreneurs, web companies and software developers who are responsible for mobile social networking applications, local blog aggregators and much more. Technology incubators like Appfrica Labs in Kampala and iHub in Nairobi are fostering new developments in this space.

ICT4D
Much of the attention on ICT in Africa has been focused on the use of these tools for economic development, or ICT4D. Mobile banking, which brings financial services to rural and extremely poor customers who lack access to traditional banks, is rapidly spreading throughout the continent. One of the better known examples is Kenya's M-PESA, which in just three years has grown from serving 50,000 customers to serving nearly 6.5 million. Question Box, a mobile phone-based tool developed with support from the Grameen Foundation, allows Ugandans to call or message operators who have access to a database full of information on health, agriculture and education — it's a little like Google for people without Internet access. Mobile phones are also being used to help rural health workers diagnose minor illnesses and counsel HIV/AIDS patients.

Ushahidi
It has become nearly impossible to discuss citizen technology efforts in Africa without mentioning Ushahidi, the crowdsourced reporting tool first developed to track post-election violence in Kenya in 2007. Ushahidi has sparked a wave of election monitoring projects that utilize the tool, both in Africa and in other regions. Sudan Vote Monitor, which tracked the country's presidential elections in April, is one example. The crowdsourced reporting tool has also been deployed in Togo, and a project is being planned in time for the 2011 elections in Liberia. In addition to election-related projects, Ushahidi has also been deployed to track medical supply shortages in eastern Africa, xenophobic attacks in South Africa, and conflict in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Technical issues

Though Africa's tech community is growing, popular lack of access to ICT is still a major obstacle to the use of technology for government accountability projects. In all but a few African countries, less than ten percent of the population has Internet access. Mobile phones — some with data services, but most with only simple texting abilities — have fared much better, with penetration rates reaching around 30 percent continent-wide.

Map via Online Africa.

This lack of access affects governments as well, which can often be less familiar with emerging technologies than their citizens. The Ghana Policy Fair mentioned above has its own Facebook page, indicating the government's desire to reach out through ICT, but some Ghanaians wish an even greater effort had been made to put information online. One blogger wrote:

So they can't simply put all this information onto a website for anyone who is interested to go and look it up? Instead people have to take time and spend lorry fair to attend a policy fair, for some information that will only be available temporarily? What a waste of time.

The lack of government capacity to effectively use ICT is one of the factors that prompted the founders of the Kenyan Budget Tracking Tool to work with various ministries to put budgetary data online in a way that would be useful for citizens. Philip Thigo, one of the project's co-founders, says the government was more or less willing to make its data accessible — and in fact was attempting to put information online — but that the ministries lacked the necessary technical skills to make their databases easily navigable by average Kenyans. In addition to building a searchable web site, the Budget Tracking Tool also developed a script to handle simple SMS queries, so that anyone with a mobile phone can text in and find out how much money has been allocated for various projects in their area. The system currently gets between 4000 and 4500 queries per month.

Also in Kenya, the founders of community mapping project Map Kibera are attempting to combat low access to technology by moving part of their project offline so they can get community members who are not able to use the Internet involved. They have decided to print paper copies of the maps they've generated online and hand them out to the community, hoping to spark a discussion. “Paper's cool, so we are going to print posters, several hundred at least, and distribute those to every school, every church, every clinic, every sort of public institution in Kibera so that people can see for themselves what's collected and start to have a particular interest on there which would suggest where this is going,” says co-founder Mikel Maron.

Resistance to technology for transparency projects

In some countries, access is also threatened by governments wary of citizens using new communications tools. According to an OpenNet Initiative report on Internet filtering in the region, while many governments are actively attempting to increase ICT penetration, some are blocking online content or monitoring citizens’ Internet use. The Sudanese government recently blocked election monitoring site Sudan Vote Monitor and YouTube during the country's presidential elections. In a number of countries, including Ghana, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Zimbabwe, Internet service providers and Internet cafés are required to hand over data on customers’ online activities to the government if asked. This kind of government intervention may discourage those who might otherwise engage in transparency efforts online.

Resistance may also come from citizens who do not see value in new technologies. Goretti Amuriat, the ICT Program Manager for the Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET), says that when the organization was initially surveying women to see how best to develop ICT initiatives, many women in rural communities were uninterested in using technology, preferring to focus their time and energy on more widely available and accessible tools. Earlier this year, reports on an e-governance program in Southern Sudan revealed that a lack of enthusiasm for technology on the part of government officials led to the program's failure.

Philip Thigo of the Budget Tracking Tool cautions against spending too much time working on neat ICT tools that don't sufficiently engage the community: “I think a thing about technology is uptake. If there's no need then you'll just have a tool that will be wowed, wowed, and then just go dead.” To make sure Kenyans would use the tool, Philip and his partner asked citizens and civil society organizations what they needed the most, then developed the tool to meet those needs.

Successes

Despite these challenges, tech for transparency projects in Africa are making an impact. Map Kibera is building partnership with local organizations focused on water, health, education and safety to use mapping technology to monitor the provision of basic services. Also in Kenya, data mining made possible by the Budget Tracking Tool uncovered a major corruption scandal at the Ministry of Water that led to the firing of a number of public officials involved. WOUGNET has held the Ugandan government accountable to women, successfully working to insert gender-sensitive language into the country's national ICT and development policies. And during this month's presidential elections, Sudan Vote Monitor received hundreds of reports, despite having their site blocked in the country for several days.

One of the most important elements of these projects’ success is the involvement of the communities in which they operate. All four have built partnerships with local organizations and consulted civil society groups. WOUGNET regularly conducts surveys of its members, shaping its own initiatives and its advocacy programs in response. Sudan Vote Monitor works with a large network of civil society organizations throughout Sudan. The founders of the Budget Tracking Tool spent time traveling throughout the country asking citizens what kinds of information would be useful to them before returning to Nairobi to develop the technical aspects of the project.

Another key aspect of many of these projects is their willingness to incorporate multiple forms of communication, using the Internet and mobile phones where possible but also extending their outreach to community meetings, radio and printed materials when necessary. WOUGNET circulates a print version of its e-mail newsletter for women who are not able to get online, Map Kibera has reached out to community members via radio.

What's next?

Aid transparency
One area the Technology for Transparency Network has not yet spent much time on is the issue of aid transparency. A substantial amount of donor money pours into sub-Saharan Africa each year — approximately $50 billion, in fact — but the effects are difficult to discern, and a growing number of academics and activists are calling for a halt to the flow. Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo has called foreign aid “an unmitigated political, economic and humanitarian disaster,” and Ugandan journalist Andrew Mwenda delivered a talk at TEDGlobal 2007 in which he argued that aid is preventing Africa from developing. Several aid transparency initiatives are using technology to open aid data to the public, including the International Aid Transparency Initiative, Aid Info, and the Ujima Project, which focuses specifically on Africa. There may be room for greater partnership between these types of organizations and country-specific projects like Kenya's Budget Tracking Tool that would help track aid flows from the international level all the way down to local project implementation.

Greater adoption by local populations
The tech for transparency community in sub-Saharan Africa is currently driven by a few strong visionaries, most of whom have outside support. While they have been able to encourage greater government accountability in some cases, their projects are still often underutilized. In his review of the second round of Technology for Transparency Network case studies, David Sasaki writes that the Budget Tracking Tool presents Kenyan budgetary data online, “where users can leave comments about the progress, impact, and efficiency of the projects. (So far, few have.)” Sudan Vote Monitor received a considerable amount of attention from both the international media and the Sudanese government during April's elections, but only a few hundred reports (an estimated 16 million people were registered to vote). A large part of this lack of adoption is the technical difficulties noted above, but in many African countries transparency activists must work hard to convince citizens that pushing for government accountability is more important than other development issues. Mikel Maron says of Kibera: “It's very much a day to day place, people are concerned with getting dinner tonight, and when you're working on a project which requires a long term individual commitment without immediate rewards, well that's understandably counter to the usual way of thinking.” As both technology and economic development spread in Africa, this may change, but for now, it is still something transparency activists must consider.

Keep an eye on the tech community
Many of Africa's tech for transparency projects so far have grown out of the tech side of things. Building technological skills in Africa is good in many ways: it helps the economy, fosters innovation, and ensures that when the need for an election monitoring project or the idea to track a country's budget arises, there is a substantial group of developers who can support the project. If stronger connections between existing civil society groups and talented techies can be built, I believe we'll see more widespread use of technology to advocate for better governance.

  • http://www.virtualeconomics.com Matt

    A great set of case studies on how ICT in transforming transparency in Africa – loved it!

  • http://www.tisa.or.ke Tisa Kenya

    TISA also monitors public funds handled by the Kenyan government.We monitor not only CDF, but also Local Authority Transfer Fund (LATF), Secondary School Bursary, Free Primary Education, Constituency AIDS Fund and the Roads Maintenance Levy Fund (RMLF)

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