Technology for Transparency: Cases from Sub-Saharan Africa

 at Havard Political Review: “Over the last decade, Africa has experienced previously unseen levels of economic growth and market vibrancy. Developing countries can only achieve equitable growth and reduce poverty rates, however, if they are able to make the most of their available resources. To do this, they must maximize the impact of aid from donor governments and NGOs and ensure that domestic markets continue to diversify, add jobs, and generate tax revenues. Yet, in most developing countries, there is a dearth of information available about industry profits, government spending, and policy outcomes that prevents efficient action.

ONE, an international advocacy organization, has estimated that $68.6 billion was lost in sub-Saharan Africa in 2012 due to a lack of transparency in government budgeting….

The Importance of Technology

Increased visibility of problems exerts pressure on politicians and other public sector actors to adjust their actions. This process is known as social monitoring, and it relies on citizens or public agencies using digital tools, such as mobile phones, Facebook, and other social media sites to spot public problems. In sub-Saharan Africa, however, traditional media companies and governments have not shown consistency in reporting on transparency issues.

New technologies offer a solution to this problem. Philip Thigo, the creator of an online and SMS platform that monitors government spending, said in an interview with Technology for Transparency, “All we are trying to do is enhance the work that [governments] do. We thought that if we could create a clear channel where communities could actually access data, then the work of government would be easier.” Networked citizen media platforms that rely on the volunteer contributions of citizens have become increasingly popular. Given that in most African countries less than 10 percent of the population has Internet access, mobile-device-based programs have proven the logical solution. About 30 percent of the population continent-wide has access to cell phones.

Lova Rakotomalala, a co-founder of an NGO in Madagascar that promotes online exposure of social grassroots projects, told the HPR, “most Malagasies will have a mobile phone and an FM radio because it helps them in their daily lives.” Rakotomalala works to provide workshops and IT training to people in regions of Madagascar where Internet access has been recently introduced. According to him, “the amount of data that we can collect from social monitoring and transparency projects will only grow in the near future. There is much room for improvement.”

Kenyan Budget Tracking Tool

The Kenyan Budget Tracking Tool is a prominent example of how social media technology can help obviate traditional transparency issues. Despite increased development assistance and foreign aid, the number of Kenyans classified as poor grew from 29 percent in the 1970s to almost 60 percent in 2000. Noticing this trend, Philip Thigo created an online and SMS platform called the Kenyan Budget Tracking Tool. The platform specifically focuses on the Constituencies Development Fund, through which members of the Kenyan parliament are able to allocate resources towards various projects, such as physical infrastructure, government offices, or new schools.

This social monitoring technology has exposed real government abuses. …

Another mobile tool, Question Box, allows Ugandans to call or message operators who have access to a database full of information on health, agriculture, and education.

But tools like Medic Mobile and the Kenyan Budget Tracking Tool are only the first steps in solving the problems that plague corrupt governments and underdeveloped communities. Improved access to information is no substitute for good leadership. However, as Rakotomalala argued, it is an important stepping-stone. “While legally binding actions are the hammer to the nail, you need to put the proverbial nail in the right place first. That nail is transparency.”…(More)