Technology could empower Africans to hold their governments to account

Digital Content

Mobile phones are almost ubiquitous across Africa but can citizens use this technology to better participate in democracy?

Next year, South African citizens will take part in their fifth democratic election. While the African National Congress will undoubtedly triumph, it can no longer rest on its laurels.

In a country with a long history of civil action, people are getting tired of waiting for the improved living conditions they've long been promised. The massacre of 34 miners protesting over pay and working conditions last year shows how bad things can get when frustrations escalate. The Democratic Alliance, the ANC's strongest opposition, is gaining strength.

Sub-Saharan Africa is now home to more than 650 million mobile phone subscribers and 50 million Facebook users, enabling critical information to reach citizens at scale and at a relatively low cost.

Technology hubs are springing up across the continent. These facilities provide people with access to high-speed internet, events, mentorship and training. Through galvanising the tech community, they're beginning to have a catalytic effect on the number and quality of tech projects being devised in-country.

But can these new technologies be harnessed to ensure that citizens have access to information and services that enable them to hold their governments to account?

The Parliamentary Monitoring Group is working alongside mySociety to create a website (optimised for mobile use) that will enable South Africans to access information easily on parliamentary proceedings and elected representatives. Rashaad Alli, project manager, explains: "Unlike the UK, South Africa doesn't have constituency-based elections. Despite getting assigned an artificial constituency, most people don't know who their assigned MP is.

"Techies have coded a rep locator that will let citizens locate their nearest MP and constituency office and give feedback. This will enable citizens to track the participation and performance of their MPs. We hope that the website will break the faceless monolith of Parliament and make for accessible representatives."

The Open Democracy Advice Centre is taking this process a step further by creating a site that enables citizens to make Freedom of Information requests. The site will also act as a data repository, enabling citizens, journalists and activists to scrutinise public service delivery and utilise this information to hold their governments to account.

In Nigeria, technologists working out of the tech innovation space Co-Creation Hub are developing applications that help to ensure citizens are better able to engage in democratic processes. An app that enables Nigerians to access their constitution via a mobile phone has been downloaded more than 870,000 times. Its developer, Zubair Abubakar, says the app was downloaded 40,000 times during the 2012 fuel subsidy protest, when it enabled citizens to exercise their rights against police forces.

This fuel crisis was exacerbated by misinformation . BudgIT, a creative startup, generated simple infographics that helped citizens to understand the new fuel subsidy payment and oil revenue share in Nigeria. The team has since produced a whole series of images that break down the country's budget by state and sector and utilise the power of social media to enable citizens to take part in more informed debates around public expenditure.

Another local group in Abuja, Follow the Money, ran a social media driven campaign which resulted in $5.3m of public money being released to the Bagega community, in Zamfara state. Hamzat Lawal explains: "In rural communities, most development projects worth millions of dollars are not executed. Local communities may not have the necessary incentives to express their feedback on government performance. We provide information on funds meant for projects in local communities, thus empowering citizens to hold their leaders accountable on government spending.

"With government officials and institutions opening Twitter and Facebook accounts and 70% of the population having mobile subscriptions, it is pertinent to use these platforms to hold government to account.

"Our targeted campaign led to the immediate release of funds meant to remediate Bagega community, where over 1,500 children needed urgent medical attention due to contamination from lead dust as a result of improper mining activities."

Whilst it's difficult for good governance initiatives to achieve financial sustainability, many operate at low cost and models are emerging which can contribute. For example, BudgIT has generated income through creating infographics for private and public institutions.

Sustainability models are emerging for technology innovation hubs, too, with Co-creation Hub generating 40% of its costs in year one and corporates like Google and Microsoft investing in these spaces. "One needs to tread into this space with caution," says Fran Perrin, founder and director of my organisation Indigo Trust, a grant-making foundation that supports digital projects aimed at accelerating social change in Africa. "The pathway from transparency to accountability is hard to prove and an initiative's success depends largely on context and a wide array of contributing factors.

"Nonetheless, examples are emerging which demonstrate technology's tremendous potential to enable citizens to access information on governance and make more informed choices. They can also amplify the voices of marginalised citizens and provide simple pathways to scrutinise government promises and hold them to account on a scale and at a cost never before possible."