#PeoplePower: Using tech to promote activism

All across Africa, social entrepreneurs are using mobile and web-based technology to hold government to account and demand the changes they need. It’s a powerful medium with a lot of potential to contribute towards social change. However, there is much to be done to ensure local ownership and maximise impact. 


Protests are stirring across South Africa. Citizens are dissatisfied and increasingly frustrated with poor delivery. Feeling unheard by their leaders, they are taking to the streets to demand a better deal. But there are other ways to communicate this important message. 

Across Africa, an increasingly educated and tech-savvy citizenry has long been waiting to have its collective voice heard. Hundreds of millions of people on the continent now have access to mobile phones, and this increased connectivity allows them to access critical information about their elected representatives and the laws that govern them. They can use it to report challenges in service delivery, corruption or human rights violations. They can also use it to amplify the voices of marginalised communities, enabling them to speak up and demand something better.

Africa loses US$148 billion to corruption every year, money that could be better spent on critical healthcare or improving education. But, while technology is not a panacea to all social problems, it does have the potential to reach people at a scale and cost never before possible. With greater access to information, citizens should be able to make more informed decisions about issues that affect them. Technology can also support them in mobilising effectively and amplifying their message to stimulate social change.


More participatory democracies 

Despite the recent elections in South Africa, an online poll undertaken by the Parliamentary Monitoring Group showed that over 80% of respondents did not know where their local constituency office was located. MPs do not appear to report on constituency work and on top of that, nobody checks up.

This is clearly problematic. For an effective democracy, there needs to be increased participation. In partnership with mySociety (a UK-based NPO that makes online tools to empower people), Parliamentary Monitoring Group (PMG) has recently launched the People’s Assembly. The site’s RepLocator (like a store locator) allows visitors to type in their address and find out who their MP/MPL is and where their constituency office is physically located.

The website also allows users to track parliamentary proceedings, committees and their elected representatives at national and provincial levels. They can engage in campaigns and access information on how to participate in elections and petitions.

The People’s Assembly website focuses on MP accountability – something that has gone largely unmonitored for the last 20 years.” – Gaile Fullard, Executive Director, Parliamentary Monitoring Group

Gaile Fullard, PMG’s Executive Director, explains why the People’s Assembly is so important: “The website focuses on MP accountability – something that has gone largely unmonitored for the last 20 years. It gives answers to questions like, ‘What has an MP commented on over the past five years?’; ‘What is their attendance like?’; ‘Is their constituency office operating?’ While proportional representation allows more opposition parties to exist, it also distances people from their representative. We need to put MP accountability in the spotlight.”

The Open Democracy Advice Centre is also partnering with mySociety to build a site for citizens, journalists and activists to make freedom-of-information requests to government.

In Nigeria, citizens are beginning to demand answers about how their government is spending public funds. Local start-up BudgIT has created simple infographics to help people understand the country’s budget allocations. The site is more than just informative – when violent protests erupted in Nigeria over fuel-subsidy payments, the team developed an infographic that helped stimulate more informed debate on social media and contributed towards restoring order in the end.

There is clearly a thirst for information on governance in Nigeria. Pledge51 has developed a Nigerian constitution app that’s already been downloaded more than 800 000 times. Downloads peaked during the protests, when citizens were naturally more interested in upholding their rights.


More empowered communities

Technology also has the power to amplify the voices of marginalised communities who are otherwise offline. When poor mining practices led to lead poisoning in the Bagega community in northern Nigeria, thousands of children were suffering from serious and sometimes fatal conditions. The government had allocated funds for their healthcare, but these hadn’t reached the community in need.

So Nigerian NGO, CODE, launched the “Follow The Money” campaign. They collected photographic evidence and testimonies from the affected community and combined this with an infographic showing the government’s commitments. In partnership with global NGOs, they created a targeted Twitter-storm and within 48 hours, the government had committed to releasing US$5.3 million to Bagega.

“We used social media platforms to direct thousands of coordinated tweets to relevant government agencies and policy-makers,” explains CODE co-founder Oludotun Babayemi. “[We] wrote on their Facebook walls and Twitter feeds and created a feedback loop through SMS platforms and Blackberry messages that reached millions within hours, thus resulting in government action and citizen empowerment.”

Africa loses US$148 billion to corruption every year, money that could be better spent on critical healthcare or improving education.

Throughout Africa, mobile platforms are being developed to enable citizens to report various issues. The NGO Cell-Life has developed a platform in Cape Town township Khayelitsha. It’s Lungisa – meaning “fix it” in isiXhosa – and citizens can use it to report problems in local service delivery. If rubbish isn’t collected or toilets are overflowing, citizens can report it via SMS, USSD, Facebook and other platforms. Reports are tracked by Cell-Life through an online map and complaints are channelled to the city council to respond. Remarkably, over 80% of the issues reported have been fixed.

The Social Justice Coalition – a mass-member based community movement in Khayelitsha – is planning to adapt their platform for use as part of a wider campaign for access to clean and safe water and sanitation services in the area. Integrating this platform into a well-devised programme with various offline activities and a well-established community of activists should help ensure that the reports do contribute towards improved service delivery.


More mobilisation, more impact 

Never before have citizens had so many channels through which to ask questions and voice concerns. In northern Uganda, the Lord’s Resistance Army’s brutal conflict displaced thousands of people, leaving infrastructure in shambles. Yes, a Peace, Recovery and Development Plan was developed, but there has been limited progress on the ground – corruption is commonplace, health centres are scarce, equipment is lacking, drugs are in short supply.

Here, the Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET) has established voluntary social accountability committees, comprising local officials and community members. They have been trained to use an SMS or online platform to report on poor governance and corrupt practices – with real impact as a result.

This platform alerted the organisation when a woman in labour was in urgent need of transportation to hospital after a midwife had turned her away earlier in the day. It also strengthened campaigning efforts, which resulted in the construction of a health centre in Aloni Parish and gave rise to the arrest of five health workers who were involved in malpractice.


In the same area, CIPESA (the Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa) has developed a platform for journalists, civil society and ordinary citizens to document the delivery of services over time through SMS reports from basic phones, or through richer data like photos and audiovisuals online. They hope the platform will reduce money lost due to corruption, thereby improving health services in the region.

Similar platforms have been used in many interesting ways, such as reporting emergencies during the Haiti earthquake on Ushahidi or forced evictions in Kenyan slums (run by Amnesty International).

But a map in itself is never enough to achieve impact. Citizens and activists need to be mobilised to submit reports. Often, they’re not accustomed to having their complaints addressed. So a well-devised programme and sufficient human capacity must be in-place to ensure reports are dealt with swiftly. This calls for strong connections with government or other service providers – without these, there’s a risk that people will be further disincentivised to engage in democratic processes.

Mobile phones can also be used as simple mapping devices forming part of broader community-driven interventions for improvement. Consider Plan Cameroon, which allows youth to map their community and populate the map with service-delivery data, such as drug availability in clinics, or the number of students and benches in classrooms. This data then feeds into a wider campaign that helps these kids to demand improved services and, says the global organisation, “access their rights to health, education, livelihoods and protection”.

But it’s not just through cellphones. Similar initiatives are being undertaken by Fruits of Thought in Uganda, where university students are trained to use GPS devices to map areas and locate power lines, land use, roads, buildings and social services. Then there’s community radio – often community members’ only connection to the outside world, along with mobile phones. FrontlineSMS and TRAC FM have combined the two media allowing community radio stations to have two-way SMS conversations with their audiences. They can conduct polls, gain insight and allow listeners to influence their programming. Again, increased connectivity leading to real-world empowerment and change.

Building the local ecosystem

Home-grown solutions often work best. They’re better tailored to the local context and are more likely to sustain themselves in the long term.

That’s why building a strong tech ecosystem and human capacity locally is more likely to lead to ongoing success. This approach is also often more cost-effective and helps bolster the local economy.

But the communities working in this space are nascent, and few of these projects are yet to reach scale. In order for this sector to achieve its aims, there is a clear need for social tech communities developed in-country.

Enter the technology innovation hubs. By providing state-of-the-art facilities, events, mentorship, training and – in some instances – incubation programmes, these spaces are bringing the tech community together to collaborate, share ideas and develop projects.

We often see the best projects arising when people are empowered to innovate to solve their own community needs.

They are springing up across the African continent – from KLab in Rwanda and KINU in Tanzania to ActivSpaces in Cameroon and iLab Liberia in Monrovia. Some are developing successful projects; BudgIT and the Nigerian Constitution App were both incubated at the Co-Creation Hub Nigeria, the leading tech innovation hub in Lagos.

But if their impact is going to transform things, hubs still need to optimise the support they provide to social entrepreneurs. They also need to develop effective models for income generation. Some interesting ones are emerging – Co-Creation Hub generated over 50% of its income in the first year.

In building a connected local ecosystem, links to activists and civil society organisations and other stakeholders who understand the process of social change are also key. There are so many fantastic organisations and networks, all of which are committed to mobilising citizens to demand better. Through engaging with the tech community, they can work together to solve social challenges more effectively.

I hope that this approach will move us towards a world in which citizens have access to the information, tools and networks they need to stand up, speak out and actively contribute to improving their own lives and those of their communities.

THE INDIGO TRUST IS ACTIVELY SEEKING APPLICATIONS from small Africa-based organisations who are using tech to further social change.

For more information, email Loren:  loren.treisman@sfct.org.uk.

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