“Governance is a two-way street. We all should sing the same song. But we should also respect each other’s role. There is no single word for governance. This may lead us to assume that governance is a government issue… But it requires participation between government and non-state actors.” – Koketso Moeti, amandla.mobi
Moderator: Koketso Moeti (amandla.mobi)
Speakers:Towela Nyirenda-Jere (African Union AUDA-NEDPAD); Eldrid Jordaan (GovChat); Aidan Eyakuze (Open Government Partnership (OGP); Angela Oduor Lungati (uShahidi)
The aim and purpose of the Opening Plenary at #Unplugged22 was to discuss the intersection of African governance, public service delivery and civic tech in its various iterations and with its different outputs across African spaces and places. Another session theme involved exploring how emerging tech is expanding these roles and relationships. Embedded within such discussions is the necessity of analysing both opportunities and risks of civic tech projects and initiatives in Africa. The session introduction was outlined by Towela Nyirende-Jere from the African Union, who noted the various dimensions of technologies to enhance human development on the one hand, and technology-enabled engagement with civic tech actors and government on the other hand. She argued a need to reflect where we, as civic tech innovators and enthusiasts, are coming from, where we are going and how we want to engage with actors and governance processes. Ms Nyirende-Jere provided an overview of the AU Civic Tech Fund (AUCTF) as an illustration of the AU’s commitment to improving service delivery through tech-driven and community-focused initiatives that support civic engagement. The question posed by the AUCTF, she argued, is “[h]ow are we really making sure that we are responding to root problems and to meet problems where there are?
The first panellist input was by Mr Aidan Eyakuze from Open Government Partnership (OGP) – a global civic society-gov partnership that promotes Inclusive and accountable governance. Mr Eyakuze outlined three core elements of open governance, namely: 1) transparency; 2) participation/inclusion; and 3) government responsiveness or accountability. The OGP ensures the commitments between governments and citizens are met with the acknowledgement that citizen voices are critical in a democracy and can be the main instruments that hold governments (especially local governments) to account. Mr Eyakuze argues that an injection for civil society in a very structured way with government over time is the innovation OGP has tested. Specific initiatives from the OGP include one based in the state of Kaduna, Nigeria where citizens are able to report on government service delivery in real time through a digital platform called “Eyes and Ears”. Another example is Vulekamali – providing South African citizens access to budget information.
The second panellist input was from Eldrid Jordaan of GovChat – widely believed to be South Africa’s most successful civic-tech platform that connects citizens to a range of government services. Mr Jordaan noted that presently, there are 9.5 million active users reporting on issues across government services in South Africa. The GovChat platform illustrates how access to information can improve government accountability, leading to more responsible, efficient and ultimately more sustainable local government service delivery. Mr argued that “the more we make data available, we are seeing a lot more government accountability” and also emphasised the importance of access to technology, the integration of appropriate technologies to meet mobile phone usage in Africa, and scaling of the GovChat platform. He noted that during the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic, GovChat was processing 600 messages per , with an estimated total of 600 million messages processed in early months of Covid in 2020.
The last panellist input was from Angela Oduor Lungati from uShahidi, a crowdfunded digital platform to monitor, map and mobilise community responses. UShahidi’s main goal is to make tech accessible to ordinary citizens, especially marginalised groups. uShahidi is an open-source platform that gathers and analyses information and enables people to take action and make informed decisions. It is therefore viewed as a tool for empowerment. Ms. Lungati spoke of the importance of having a bottom-up approach to information-sharing. But she also highlighted some challenges that the organisation faces. For example, during the earlier waves of the Covid-19 pandemic, there were significant information gaps in terms of tracking the disease spread and progression, amidst limited government capacity and limited resources. Despite such challenges, Ushahidi recognises and celebrates that citizens are part of the solutions to many of the challenges they are presented with. Ms Lungati highlighted how ordinary citizens are capable of creating information hubs, mutual aid, and knowledge exchange through their lived experiences and stories.
Following the detailed panellist inputs, some emerging themes were discussed on the both the role and potential of civic tech initiatives in Africa, as well as challenges and opportunities inherent in existing governance systems and frameworks. These are outlined below:
The importance of “civic” in civic tech
There is a need to open up civic tech in order to meet technology access with truer transparency and accountability between citizens and governments. The panellists all agreed on the crucial role of citizens within the civic tech sector. For example, Ms Lungati stated that success of uShahidi hinges on active citizen participation. Within this context, citizens are empowered and can drive the changes they want to see in their communities. Ms Nyriende-Jere highlighted how number of civil and non-state actors is growing with emerging organisations dealing with democracy, good governance, human rights, and children’s rights. But she also noted that the civic space is shrinking, cautioning that governments in some instances sees civil society organisations as a threat. Non-state actors oftentimes face constraints both physically and virtually, including internet blackouts that limit civic engagement. Therefore, she emphasised “[w]e need to make the circle bigger” and collaborate on projects with common goals and protect the integrity of civic actors to support the government.
Technology alone is not enough to generate accountability
Technology in and of itself is not enough to solve poor governance in Africa. The consensus among the panellists was that effort is needed to build trust between government and citizens to allow for progression and inclusive development. It is equally critical to look at civic tech tools being developed and implemented in Africa with a critical eye. One should think carefully about the unintended risks that these tools create. From a broader institutional governance perspective, Ms Nyriende-Jere noted how Africa has a solid foundational and policy framework yet when it comes to implementing action plans or “walking the talk”, Africans still lag behind other countries. Therefore, she called for a need to align existing policies and plans with the development and sustainability of the civic tech sector on the continent. Furthermore, the question of developing appropriate and context specific visioning in the civic tech sector was raised as an important next step.
The reality of inherent risks that accompany civic tech technologies and tools
In today’s age of social media, citizens distrust animosity and disillusionment regarding government is a major challenge. Ms Lungati noted the importance of being wary of reactionary actions aimed at closing down civic spaces and citizen rights (across the world). The closing down of civic spaces is seen through internet shutdowns and in some cases censorship and disinformation. Ms Nyriende-Jere added that there’s still much more that can be done institutionally such as Pan African collaborations that could support targeted disinformation campaigns, while protecting citizens and their digital rights.
The session provided an in-depth overview of the expanding and rapidly evolving civic tech space in Africa, with key insights from impactful projects across Africa. On reflecting on the legacy of civic tech in Africa, Ms Nyirende-Jere noted how oftentimes with the development of civic tech solutions, the end users may be neglected, and, in some cases, the solutions posed are in direct conflict with the problems that the technology is trying to solve. Therefore, she highlighted a need to question the use-value of civic tech and engage collaboratively across sectors and with different stakeholders to support the viability and sustainability of the African civic tech ecosystem. Mr Jordaan applauded the role of African civic tech tools in terms of open governance and civic engagement and noted how other countries are looking at Africa for best practice cases. Mr Eyakuze supported a greater opening up and honest dialogue between government and civil society organisations and their constituents, thereby alleviating existing tensions and distrust amongst parties. Based on the cases presented in the session, there are a lot of opportunities to bring stakeholders together, both from the government and private sectors, to address issues through common goals. The urgency to close policy and legislation and policy gaps which are currently lagging technology adoption and implementation must take precedence if we are to build useful civic tech tools that are capable of strengthening transparency, accountability, governance, and greater democratic engagement.