Paper: Strengthening citizen agency through ICT: an extrapolation for Eastern Africa

This is the summary of the paper “Strengthening citizen agency through ICT: an extrapolation for Eastern Africa” by Giacomo Zanello and Paul Maassen

It deals with ICT in support to citizen agency which includes to involve & inform communities and interact with and influence authorities

The paper focuses on what is already happening and where the potentials lie – how can active citizens interact with society & authorities with the use of ICT tools

The geographical area covered is Eastern Africa (Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda)

The research is based on an open questionnaire by Hivos

Key questions:

  • Which conditions enable citizen agency in developing countries?
  • How can ICT support citizen agency in order to influence the authorities?
  • Based on technological projections, how will ICT support the efficiency and effectiveness of citizen agency in 5 years time?

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Summary:

Civil society: seen as essential actor for promoting democracy in developing countries

Citizen agency: broader definition of civil society including NGOs, labour & student unions, …

The main reason why new ICT can help citizen agency

  • Bi- (or multi-) directional tools
  • Real time

The two main uses of ICT

  • Information and monitoring of authorities
  • Organize citizen actions

Examples for information and monitoring

  • Ushahidi: crowd-sourcing information on incidents and violence
  • Bunge SMS: tool to report to members of the parliament about the actions of the local government
  • Behind the mask: communication initiative for LGBTI activists
  • Global Voices Online: participatory news platform for developing countries
  • Mzalendo.com: volunteer run project to keep an eye on the Kenyan parliament
  • Jamiiforums.com: East African platform for debates on various issues

Examples for organization

  • Dgroups.org: provides groups working in international development with email lists and webspace
  • Tactical Tech: international NGO providing human rights advocates with consultancy, tools, trainings & toolkits to increase the impact of their campaigns
  • FrontlineSMS: free software to turn a mobile with a modem into a communications hub
  • Nabuur: links online volunteers with local communities

Generally there is a big and vibrant civil society in East Africa and ICTs have huge potentials to assist these initiatives to reach their aim

It is no longer a question of technology – as technology is already there – but imagination, adaptability and time

The key is not complex devices, but usable and easy to understand technology – therefore it is important to focus on grass roots development instead of importing solutions

The prerequisites for a spread of ICTs in the next 5 years are

  • Energy – there is a need for alternative sources of energy such as solar power
  • Connectivity – the forecast in this study predicts a rise to about 70% coverage in Eastern Africa
  • Literacy – easy to use systems, voice command and local languages in applications can overcome the current problems
  • Income – new devices will cost less and be therefore better affordable

Another vital prerequisite is the need to find out about the desired use of ICTs for East African citizens – technology has to address the needs of the people

Therefore an interdisciplinary approach including anthropology would be useful

As seen above, for democracy and transparency ICTs have large potentials – including citizen journalism or election watch

The challenges of ICT in the near future are twofold

  • Networking between people with similar goals and for sharing experiences on a national or even global level
  • Give voice for global leaders and visionaries to give them visibility and connectivity

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The original article Strengthening citizen agency through ICT: an extrapolation for Eastern Africa

I think the article is a good overview over the issues of civil society initiatives in East Africa in particular and the conclusions and predictions of it can even be extended to a larger geographical area.

It is once again underlined that real innovation always comes from bottom-up and ICT can release huge potentials when meeting the needs of the people.

I also definitely support the call for more interdisciplinary research on the ground to find out the real needs of the people – combined with collaborating with grass roots initiatives and empowering people by giving them possibilities to access to the world and connect with like-minded people.

I feel like the international research scene has given up the top-down approach already a while ago – but still there are way too many projects out there preaching not fitting imported solutions to citizens in developing countries and driving them into dependence of Western assistance.

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Paper: Strengthening citizen agency through ICT: an extrapolation for Eastern Africa
was published on 17.06.2009 by Florian Sturm. It files under east africa
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The Bottom Billion

The Bottom Billion; picture from Amazon

The Bottom Billion; picture from Amazon

The last days I read the remarkable book The Bottom Billion of Paul Collier. I learned so many relevant things on development of lesser developed countries that I really want to recommend you to read it.

Paul Collier

Paul Collier; picture from policyinnovations.org

Generally, Paul Collier is

“Professor of Economics and Director of the Center for the Study of African Economies at the Oxford University, and former director of Development Research at the World Bank. [from the book]”

He wrote the book “The Bottom Billion” as a contribution to research on “Why The poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It” – as also the subheading says.

The studies which he conducted over several years with some colleagues (and which are published on his homepage) are the base of the book. I like his approach to explain highly controversial and disputed political questions with exclusively statistical instruments.

Many outcomes are surprising even for people who are highly interested in the topic of development – like me. Questions such as “what causes war?” or “does aid help?” are answered by statistical research and the interpretations seem quite reasonable.

So in the following I will line out some findings that I found interesting and that also have relevance for ICT4D (or for which ICT4D could be relevant).

– A key factor for ensuring that revenues for resources or aid money is spent for the good of the country (resulting on faster growth rates of the economy) and not “lost” on the way is a free press.

In this context I thought of bloggers which, in some countries, exist, even if there is no free press. I would be interested if their inluence is similar – actually I am quite positive about that. So maybe initiatives such as Rising Voices or Global Voices Advocacy have a real economic impact?

– For landlocked countries which are dependent on their neighbours, there are two ways to escape their situation which involve ICTs.

One possibility is to become a center for e-services and attract foreign companies to outsource there. This could foster economic growth – and I even would extend that suggestion beyond the scope of landlocked countries. E-services are easy to outsource and their popularity seems to be rising and rising. Any low-wage country offering such services is attractive to companies.

The other possibility is to “create a transpartent and investor-friendly environment for resource prospecting [from the book]”. Here ICTs could help as well with tools in e-transparency and e-democracy.

– To raise productivity, labor force in less developed countries need private capital, which is always scarce in such countries.

Here I thought of microfinance and platforms such as Kiva. With Kiva, capital can be allocated directly to the ones in need. By the way – just recently the initiative into(context) has been launched to optimize Kiva, providing the lenders faster with more accurate information about the progress of the borrowers’ businesses.

– An aiding-instrument which has a very high impact compared to the money spent, is technical assistance by foreign specialists. Especially after a new leader comes into power, it pays off to send skilled workers into a country, training the local population.

Here I thought of Geekcorps, an NGO which sends technically skilled people in less developed countries to teach the local population to set up their comunications infrastructure.

– According to the book, the key medium which can bring tranparency and foster change in lesser developed countries is the radio.

Though development on the IT and especially mobile sector is advancing quickly (Nokia’s announcement was of course a big step forward), I agree that we must not forget the well-established ICTs already in place – such as TV or radio. With combining these “old” and “new” technologies a lot can be achieved.

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In the book, the possibilities of ICTs are not mentioned specifically, a more macropolitical set of policy measures are proposed. In this TED-talk for example, Paul Collier expresses more closely some of his ideas how to improve the situation of the bottom billion with policy measures.

Still, in some examples such as the ones mentioned above, there is potential for ICTs to help. The book provides a very good framework where, in which context and when certain measures should be applied. So in my opinion this is a must-read for people who are interested in development generally.

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The Bottom Billion
was published on 11.11.2008 by Florian Sturm. It files under global
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