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Technology for Transparency: The South Asian Story

He’s permitted to go into the antechamber. It has doors which lead on farther, barriers which can be passed, if one has the courage. For me even this antechamber is utterly inaccessible.

Franz Kafka, The Castle

South Asia one of the world’s most populated areas, it has faced several military coups, dictatorship, civil wars, monarchies, and has had a long colonial history. The whole of the South Asian region has had a tumultuous history, and the frustration of its citizens with the ‘system’, has only increased over the years. Its systems of governance have been shaped by its turbulent political past, and for many in the transparency movement, Kafka's statement is not far off. There has always been a hide-and-seek relationship between information sought, and information provided – with citizens often left in the labyrinth of bureaucracy and outdated processes.

There are several dimensions that affect the current context. Firstly, the region has seen strong people’s movements, public protests and social campaigns taken up by citizens to hold their governments accountable. For instance, the Right to Information movement in India lead to the passage of the Right to Information Act in October 2005. There have been efforts by some governments themselves to make information publicly accessible. The Bangladesh Government set up a series of websites in 2003 to enable a more consistent information flow from government agencies to citizens. Civil society has also been active in facilitating citizen information and demanding that governments be held more accountable. For instance, the Democratic and Election Alliance, Nepal is dedicated to spreading citizen awareness about their democratic rights, and monitoring elections with on-the-ground observers.

Rhetoric and Reality

South Asia is experiencing major changes – with several challenges, successes and, understandably, failures. There are the promises of a Digital Bangladesh, and then, there are the efforts to impose Internet censorship in Pakistan.

ICT (Information Communication Technology) has become a buzzword in South Asia in policy debates, newspaper op-ed's, and in government circles. In India and Bangladesh, governments have placed special emphasis on ICT. In fact, Bangladesh's ‘Vision 2021’ envisages a ‘Digital Bangladesh’ with a strong focus on participation, transparency, and accountability. The Government of India came up with a National e-governance Plan in 2003. Pakistan’s Government set up a National ICT R&D fund in 2007. Such initiatives reveal a trend among South Asian governments to place an emphasis on technology.

Now, in the ‘Technology for Transparency’ movement, the other part is transparency, which is a highly contested sphere in South Asia. A quick glance at the political history of South Asia reveals that democracy has not been stable in most countries in the region. In fact, India and Sri Lanka happen to be the only countries with a stale track record of democracy since independence, and even India has resorted to emergency rule while some Sri Lankan activists claim to live in a psuedo-democracy. The political history of South Asia has been peppered with coups, like those in Pakistan, Maldives and Bangladesh. Sri Lanka’s past has been marred with conflict, and in Bhutan a ban on the Internet was lifted in 1999 and parliamentary elections took place for the first time in 2008.

The government is an abstract entity for most people, especially in the rural areas. An entity that holds a power, which most people find impossible to fathom and challenge. The ethos of self-governance or good governance has been conveniently missing. This feeling was reiterated in almost, all the interviews, especially with Kiirti.

South Asia's long colonial history followed by a hotly contested political space has affected how the region's transparency movement has taken shape. The movement in South Asia started roughly at the turn of the century, when the use of the Internet increased significantly. Undoubtedly, the spread of technology not only provided the citizens with tools, but also the impetus, to pressure their governments to become more transparent and accountable. The beginnings of the movement can be traced to blogs, which started as personal online diaries, but increasingly informed opinions and affected the news agenda. Today, there are several more methodical initiatives that are developing new tools, connecting citizens to government agencies, mobilizing communities, organizing action, and more.

Successes

As the case studies will demonstrate, a strong ‘technology for transparency’ movement has started in these countries, in spite of – or because of – their political conditions. The Centre for Monitoring Election Violence in Sri Lanka is an illustrative example. In Pakistan, the ‘Don’t Block the Blog’ movement fights against government censorship to create an atmosphere where free speech and government reform activists can operate without fears of reprisal. For Sanjana Hattotuwa of the Center for Policy Alternatives, election-related violence in Sri Lanka highlights the reason to work for greater transparency and accountability. Their maps of electoral fraud and violence spread more awareness about the need to ensure safer elections for democracy in Sri Lanka to remain credible.

South Asian technologists have developed new tools to facilitate interactions between citizens and their governments. Kiirti is one example of a layer between citizens with complaints, civil society organizations. “Though a first glance it appears to add another layer to the system already in place and may seem like a ‘less than ideal’ approach,” writes Aparna Ray in her review of the case study, “citizens may actually welcome this buffer which facilitates engagement and gives visibility, weight to their complaints and issues/ cause(s).”

Civil society organizations that have worked in similar areas before without using online technologies are now beginning to realize the potential of online tools. For instance, iJanaagraha was founded on the experiences and conclusions of the online campaign ‘Jaago Re!’ by its more traditional parent organization Janaagraha. The Center for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) in Sri Lanka began in 1997, but only went online two years back.

Early responses by governments in the region to these projects are encouraging. “We have received tremendous support from the Election Commission of India,” says Velu Shankar of iJanaagraha, for example. In fact, the governments themselves have started several e-governance projects in India and Bangladesh to encourage civic participation and to make information available online.

A closer look: Citizens and their participation

Technology has certainly provided an impetus to the transparency movement, and has provided a powerful tool in the hands of citizen participants. From the initial stages of blogging by just a few individuals about issues, it has matured to more concerted and organized efforts. These projects are now able to provide information that has never before been accessible to citizens. The effort by Mumbai Votes for example, to provide a ‘Promise Vs Performance Analysis’ is the kind of information a voter would need to make an informed decision, but it was previously never available. CMEV mapped out election violence, while ‘naming and shaming’ the perpetrators openly, so that citizens could discover the information in a clear, visual way. Praja, provides information on MLAs, MPs, Corporators, and complaints that have been filed in local wards on civic issues. It also has a forum to help citizens, establish a dialogue with their local representatives and follow up.

Vote Report India asked citizens to send reports on election through SMSs, emails, photos, videos etc. The citizens did what conventionally ‘journalists’ do – report. This was an instance of ‘citizen journalism’ and probably, for the first time, the citizen had the opportunity to collaborate in monitoring the election themselves. However, we also recognize that the first implementation of Vote Report India only attracted the participation of a core group of volunteers. Wider participation in future years will depend on forming more partnerships with civil society organizations – as Cuidemos el Voto has done in Puebla, Mexico – and organizing voter education workshops, such as VoteReportPH has done in the Philippines.

On the Ground: the Impacts

The question still remains, if these efforts are bringing about any substantial changes, if they are able to point to greater accountability and increased transparency as a result of their work. Gaurav Mishra of Vote Report India, has noted that widespread voter registration campaigns and transparency initiatives did not increase the voter turnout in the previous election, though it did manage to lay ‘a foundation in engaging India’s urban middle-class youth in serious civic issues.’ He also mentions that maybe, they weren't able to reach out to the people who actually experienced problems while voting. He points out that technology has its limitations in monitoring elections.

Sanjana Hattotuwa, from CMEV, almost has a similar view, “…these exercises alone, including my own, have little chance of really strengthening democracy. Technology alone then is no guarantee of cleaner elections. But technology can be part of the solution.”

From Kiirti’s perspective, the project has in fact held the government more accountable. Civic issues which took months to get resolved or were never really expected to be, were suddenly resolved overnight in a few cases. According to Kiirti's founder, Selvam, “…it was a dramatic incident – it made a big difference in the mindset of the people – that there’s an easy way for them to report, and then to effect a change.”

As the initiatives experiment with technology and assess their own impact, they are also learning in the process. For instance, Jasmine Shah of the ‘Jaago Re!’ campaign, said in an interview that they realized some people couldn’t follow the online process of voter registration very well, and they were therefore thinking about enabling voter registration via mobile phone.

Challenges

In most South Asian countries there are two major challenges. One is access to the Internet. In 2008 the World Bank estimated that only 5% of Indians were Internet users. Internet use is heavily skewed toward urban centers, and is often not available in rural areas where there might not be electricity. Inaccessibility of the overwhelming majority of the population to technology poses a barrier to technology for transparency projects that rely on internet access.

In spite of this, the existing projects have managed to make a considerable amount of offline impact given under the circumstances. In fact, most of them have focused on offline impact. Kiirti, for example, maintains that its measure of success depends on the number of issues reported by the citizens compared to those that actually get resolved. It also believes, this offline impact will slowly increase their user-base, as people begin to realize their ability to effect real change.

Second, is the political situation itself. The extreme conditions in many countries do not allow citizens to either use technology freely or to openly question the government. Hence, some citizens who want to initiate or participate in certain kinds of projects might be held back. “Electoral reforms… have not taken place in Sri Lanka (and is an obstacle in our work),” says Sanjana Hattotuwa of the Center for Policy Alternatives.

Direct communication with government agencies and officials varies widely from project to project. CMEV’s election violence monitoring reports are consulted seriously by the government and have even led to new elections. Velu from iJanaagraha said that they lobby local governments to create more representative urban, self-governance systems. During the Jaago Re! Campaign, they were in constant touch with the Election Commission of India.

Kiirti decided to stay away from issues related to serious corruption, unless they find the right, experienced NGO that is already working on the issue to partner with. Vivek Gilani of Mumbai Votes mentions that the political establishment still sees the transparency movement as a threat instead of an opportunity to showcase their achievements.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Mumbai Votes, Kiirti, the Center for Monitoring Election Violence, and iJanaagraha are only a few case studies from the South Asia region. There are many more initiatives that are providing momentum to the technology for transparency movement. The number of bloggers is increasing, more people are raising civic and electoral issues through online platforms, new online projects are developing to mobilize people to start taking collective action. It is apparent that the voice is getting louder and clearer.

There is a huge emphasis on voting and elections in most of the South Asian countries. All the South Asian countries are comparatively young democracies, and these efforts are clearly to help them evolve into mature ones, where there is increased civic participation, political representation, political accountability, and transparency in the way that government functions.

The importance of maps in technology for transparency projects is also evident. Kiirti provides multiple instances of Ushahidi on a single platform. CMEV is looking at using tools like, Ushahidi and FrontlineSMS in the near future for better monitoring. iJanaagraha feels that interactive maps are effective ways to visualize information.

Most of the initiatives are by citizens themselves, or by the civil society organizations. This shows an increased awareness and involvement by citizens in governance issues in South Asia. The technology for transparency movement in South Asia is only in its infancy, but there is a clear momentum to take it further. There will be a definitive increase in such initiatives as technology – and access to it – spreads. But to encourage more participation and to create a greater offline impact these initiatives should hold more offline events with citizens and government officials to agree on how government agencies should respond to online governance-related activities by the citizens they represent.

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