Asch Harwood is the Africa program research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Last week, SAIS hosted a conference on information and communication technology (ICT) and political participation in Africa. Participants explored the potential of ICT to improve governance in Africa by promoting dissent, organizing opposition, enabling large groups to express shared concerns, and reducing communication transaction costs; as well as improving government effectiveness by streamlining administrative functions (bureaucratic listservs or mobile courts for example), opening channels of communication with constituents, and improving service delivery.
Speakers also presented challenges, expanding the “digital divide” between those who have access to technology and those who don’t, which takes many forms: rural/urban, male/female, old/young, or working within difficult political contexts. One theme came through in particular: “ICT-enabled, not driven.” Pretty obvious, right?
Turns out it’s not.
As speakers as well as audience questions attested to, it is easy to get caught up in the ICT component of a project and allow it to overshadow the desired outcomes. The existence of a deployment becomes the measure of success.
One speaker brought up the oft-cited Ushahidi crisis mapping initiative during Haiti’s devastating earthquake in 2010 to crowdsource information for “disaster-affected populations.” They were able to roll out and promote an SMS short code that Haitians affected by the earthquake could text to report problems in their vicinity, yielding a large amount of data plotted on a map.
A major challenge Ushahidi Haiti organizers encountered, however, was the difficulty international responders had integrating this crowdsourced information into their own operating procedures so they could actually use it.
This isn’t all that surprising. It’s tough to get large organizations to change the way they operate. And the Ushahidi project was reportedly set up within two hours of the earthquake, seriously limiting the available preplanning stage.
The impact of citizen monitoring using mobile phones and crisis mapping platforms in the 2011 Nigerian elections, which I have a written about previously, was also limited, in a different sense. While electoral failures were recorded and reported, weak institutions and/or lack of political will has, so far, undermined the judiciary’s ability to prosecute electoral malfeasance. Another speaker echoed this point, that after the elections, there was no one to hold accountable.
So how do we ensure these tools are being used to their full potential?
The rule of thumb, espoused by more than one presenter, was the 90/10 rule: 90 percent on planning and 10 percent on the technology. Excellent advice and an important guiding principle to ensure that thought is first put into the desired outcome—helping first responders do their jobs better, making governance more transparent, reducing information transaction costs—and then figuring out how ICT tools can help achieve those outcomes.
(And finally, if your desired outcome happens to be to educate about ICT projects on the African continent, then I think the Africa Technology and Transparency Initiative and Hubs in Africa have a done a good job. I found this interactive break down of the Nigerian budget particularly useful.)