Citizen Empowerment: New Technology Gives a Voice to the Voiceless

While technology is not a panacea for social problems, it has the potential to connect citizens to information on the laws and people that govern them at a lower cost and larger scale than ever before and to make all voices count.

Corruption is rife in Africa, costing the continent $148 billion each year - money that could be better spent on improving education, health services or infrastructure.

Citizens are demanding better. Last year, mobile penetration rose above 80% in Africa and an increasingly tech savvy citizenry are beginning to utilise this technology to hold their governments to account.

While technology is not a panacea for social problems, it has the potential to connect citizens to information on the laws and people that govern them at a lower cost and larger scale than ever before and to make all voices count.

It is twenty years since the start of democracy and following Madiba's death, the world's eyes are fixed on South Africa. Citizens born after the end of apartheid just voted for the first time and tensions are mounting. Corruption Watch cites a 20% increase in the number of cases involving mismanagement of resources and abuse of power in a single year.

Protests are breaking out across the country, as citizens become increasingly frustrated with broken promises and poor service delivery. They feel distanced from their representatives, unable to actively participate in the democracy they fought so hard for.

In Khayelitsha, an impoverished township in Cape Town, citizens can report problems in local service delivery- such as blocked drains and overflowing litter - using SMS or USSD from basic feature phones or other platforms like Facebook. These reports are channelled to the Lungisa platform's online map. Cell-Life, the organisation which runs it then liaises with the City council to resolve them. Remarkably, over 80% of issues are logged as resolved.

For the offline population, journalists and activists have a role to play in conveying pertinent messages to the general public in an accessible and meaningful way. Working in partnership with mySociety, the UK's leading developer of democracy and citizen participation sites, Parliamentary Monitoring Group has recently launched People's Assembly.

Through this site, citizens can locate their local constituency using the site's rep locator. Of those surveyed during the launch of People's Assembly, over 80% claimed they couldn't locate their local office. As Rashaad Alli, Parliamentary Monitoring Group's Monitor and Projects Manager explains,

"The site's RepLocator (like a store locator) allows you to type in your address and find out who your MP/MPL is and where their constituency office is. MPs do not appear to report on constituency work and nobody checks up. Through this application, citizens can check up and report back via a comment form."

The website encourages citizens to sign petitions and participate in campaigns and elections and makes MP/MPL attendance records available for the first time. Users can also isolate what a specific MP has contributed to any discussion in parliament's committees and plenaries, enabling citizens to monitor their level of engagement.

Teaming up with local partners, mySociety has created similar sites in Ghana (Odekro), Nigeria (Shine Your Eye) and Kenya (Mzalendo). The websites have already attracted the attention of MPs, who are contacting them in an attempt to improve their profiles.

Home-grown solutions are springing up across the continent. In Nigeria, Africa's most populous country, Pledge 51 has created a Constitution app which has been downloaded over 800,000 times, demonstrating a real thirst for this sort of information.

When poor mining practices resulted in the sickness of thousands of children in the Bagega community in Northern Nigeria, the $5.3 million allocated for urgent healthcare never arrived. Follow The Money visited the community and collected evidence like photos and testimonies. They displayed this information on an infographic and partnered with other organisations to create a Twitter storm targeting MPs and other officials. Within 48 hours, government committed to release the funds.

Whilst the vast majority of citizens in Bagega are very much offline, the smart team utilised technology to amplify their voices and improve their lives. Co-founder Oludoton Babayemi explains, "It is pertinent to use social media to direct thousands of coordinated tweets and Facebook messages to concerned government agencies and policy makers and create a feedback loop through SMS platforms and Blackberry messages that reach millions within hours, thus resulting in government action and citizen empowerment."

Meanwhile, BudgIT is creating infographics which help to explain critical elements of the budget to citizens in a way that makes them easy to understand. They then utilise social media to spark dialogue around these issues.

During Nigeria's fuel crisis, where citizens protested on mass against new fuel subsidy payments, misinformation was contributing to the eruption of violence. The team developed a visualisation which helped to spark more informed debate around the issue.

This sector is still new. To grow, it will require the development of the local tech ecosystem and brokerage of partnerships with organisations which understand change processes and can help to mobilise citizens on mass. Yet when technology is used as part of a well devised programme, it has huge potential to transform the relationship between citizens and government. I, for one, look forward to seeing the story unfold.


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