Facilitating Dialogue on Governance in AfricaAfrica PartnersPublished May 12, 2011 at 11:00 3 Comments
The increasing penetration of mobile telephony in Africa is widening opportunities for people to take part in discussions about governance. Radio is a widespread medium through which communities can tune-in to listen to debates on topics such as health, the environment and politics. FrontlineSMS:Radio is a software which is being designed to help facilitate radio listener interaction via text message.
The FrontlineSMS:Radio project is generously supported by the Cairns Charitable Foundation which was founded by Lord Simon Cairns. Simon was the chairman of Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) between 1981 and 1992, chaired the Overseas Development Institute between 1995 and 2002 and is currently a board member of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation. Created by Mo Ibrahim, a Sudanese businessman, the Foundation is focussed on enabling African civil society to hold their governments to account and improving the quality of governance across the continent. Simon also has a longstanding interest in mobile telephone technology, and he was appointed chairman of the African telecommunications company Celtel in October 2007.
Amy O’Donnell met Simon in the Mo Ibrahim Foundation offices (see photo above), just off Oxford Street, to speak with him about how he thinks new technologies, such as FrontlineSMS:Radio, can help African citizens to influence processes of governance which affect them. The interview is written up here by Hussain Abdullah from FrontlineSMS:Radio.
Simon began the interview by recollecting a discussion he had with Mo Ibrahim many years ago, which eventually led to the creation of the Ibrahim Index of African Governance: a framework enshrining the foundations of good governance. “Mo Ibrahim and I both had, from our separate standpoints, views on why certain countries worked and why certain countries didn’t work.” Simon explained, “We found that it came to thinking in terms of ‘have you got the right leader?’ Then almost everything else will follow. In due course countries can build good institutions, but in the first instance they have to have good leaders… We then got together with the Kennedy School of Governance At Harvard to try to describe what made good governance.”
From the foundations laid by this kind of discussion, the Ibrahim Index was formulated. The index is considered to represent proxies for the quality of the processes and outcomes of governance. The four pillars of the index are: safety and the rule of law, participation and human rights, sustainable economic opportunity; and human development. Simon believes that some combination of these four standards is “what all citizens have the right to demand of their government.” Mo Ibrahim who created the Foundation is pictured left. (Photo:Mo Ibrahim Foundation)
FrontlineSMS is a free and open source software which enables communities to harness the power of SMS and assists them to introduce channels through which people are able to have their voices heard. Mobile phone usage has grown exponentially across Africa, and here Simon explains what he sees as the value of this ubiquitous technology and his particular interest in mobile phones:
“I have been fascinated by the extent to which new technologies have allowed information flows to develop very much more broadly than they have before.” It is clear Simon believes that progress in development is rooted in the extent to which the voice of civil society is heard, as he relays his own experience of the power of communication technologies, “Many years ago when I was chairman of the Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) we had two volunteers working in Northern Nigeria developing a radio programme which created an enormous response in the North. I became aware of the power that radio might have in creating a debate which captured imaginations when these volunteers began receiving 10,000 letters a week from across Northern Nigeria.”
The effectiveness of these technologies in allowing more people to take part in discussions of governance and political participation is still difficult to evaluate. This is why FrontlineSMS:Radio is uniquely partnered with the University of Cambridge Centre of Governance and Human Rights (CGHR). The Centre is conducting a two-year research project to explore the extent to which new information and communications technologies influence citizen participation in processes of governance in Africa. Simon elaborated on this research by highlighting his interest, particularly with regards to “how the research project with Cambridge University can shed some new light on issues of governance.”
“Communities in remote places have not, until the last 5-10 years, had any real regular contact with the rest of society, other than the occasional visit to a market to sell goods. I believe that if democracy means anything, it must be that the voice of all people are heard and understood. I hope that what we will try to do is trigger an interest in thinking about these issues in the minds of a much broader citizen population. If you are going to lead the road to democracy then you need to make their voices heard which, until now, have not been articulated in any recognisable form.”
Mobile phone technology does not only create a local flow of information, say between communities and domestic governments, but a much broader flow which will allow others to ask questions about difficult issues that underlie governance in Africa. As the discussion with Simon drew to a close, he was asked to imagine that he was a radio DJ in Kenya and to suggest what kind of questions he might posit to his listeners. He replied that although there is not one answer, the kind of questions would be as follows:
“How highly do they value education as opposed to other forms of economic activity? How important are aspects of human rights? Do they want people to be educated and maybe not return to their communities? How important is safety? If safety is a concern can we start off by saying that until you feel safe, all other aspects of human development we have tried to cover, account for nothing?”
Simon concluded by suggesting, “It is very important that those who form governments should be in touch with the views of their people. Those views need to form part of what those potential governments think about when they develop and construct their policy. It is also important for the community to be aware of not just what the government has to say, but also the ways in which other parts of society are able to create channels of communication through bottom-up governance.”
FrontlineSMS:Radio is working to support radio stations to facilitate dialogue with their listeners by making it easier for them to manage feedback via text message. On this project, Simon summed up by suggesting that, “What is vital is the ability for interactive communication. This can be achieved through using media like radio and partly by facilitating proper two way communication by using mobile telephony in order to create a proper dialogue between the two.”