Using modern technology to boost transparency and participation
Over the past 15 years, there has been a meteoric rise in the number of internet and mobile phone users. Estimates by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) suggest that there are currently around seven billion mobile phone subscriptions worldwide (compared to 738 million in 2000). 3.2 billion people use the internet (in 2000 it was 400 million) and 2 billion of them live in developing countries.
As information and communication technology (ICT) becomes available to more and more people in developing and emerging countries, completely new approaches to governance are appearing, bringing with them new potential for development cooperation activities in this area. The internet and mobile phones can be used to pilot new participation methods, increase transparency and public accountability and make government services more efficient. These approaches are known collectively as "electronic governance", or "e-governance" for short.
There are a few parameters that need to be in place in order to create e-governance structures and use them for development purposes.
The main one, functioning basic infrastructure (electricity and internet), in itself poses major challenges for many partner countries in German development cooperation work. In rural areas especially, installing digital infrastructure is a complicated and costly matter. Yet poor people – one of the key target groups of development cooperation efforts – tend to live in precisely those areas.
A further requirement is that those in charge in government are able to take ownership of the necessary strategies. E-governance cannot compensate for poor management – on the contrary, good management is vital for effective e-governance implementation.
There are also certain factors that have to be precisely analysed and taken into account when setting up e-governance systems if discrimination is to be avoided. They include age structure, standard of education, women’s status, income distribution, language differences and the ratio of urban to rural population.
For e-governance to work, people must have confidence in the government. If they do not, they will not take advantage of the new communication and participation facilities.
Information technology (IT) offers a range of possibilities that can help achieve the development objective of good governance. Examples include:
- Improved data
All development planning is based on the data currently available but the data held by, for example, resident or land registry offices is inadequate in many developing counties. IT solutions make systematic, automated collection of statistical data possible.
- Communication and participation
The internet opens up new forms of communication between the government and the people, thus rendering the former better able to respond to the latter’s needs. If budgets, draft bills and plans for land use and local infrastructure projects can be viewed online, it means that people can discuss them and play an active role in the decision-making process. With speech recognition technology, illiterate members of society can be involved too. And mobile applications also make participation a more accessible option.
- Accountability and transparency
Government activity, in fiscal matters for instance, can be made significantly more transparent with the help of information technology. If, for example, local authorities publish their revenues and expenditure on the web, it makes it easier to keep track of financial flows.
Governments with a low level of efficiency can use the internet to outsource services – to the citizens themselves (through crowdsourcing). In Egypt, citizens’ action groups use this approach to fight corruption, for instance. In another example, volunteers in Kenya collected infrastructure data from a poor district of Nairobi. Not only did this deliver valuable data for urban planning, it also created a basis for public consultations between slum dwellers and the municipal authorities.
E-governance is an extremely complex field and rolling it out requires a high degree of expertise. Most e-governance strategies have been developed in industrialised countries and cannot simply be transplanted to developing countries.
One risk is that they might not work because the situation on the ground is completely different. Another is that the developing country might become technologically dependent on another country or a software company – a dependence that would conflict with the notion of good governance. Moreover, the risk of corruption is high when IT services are outsourced to private firms.
Matters concerning data protection, freedom of opinion and democratic control also need to be resolved before electronic systems can be set up.
- Issues: Freedom of opinion and freedom of the press
- Issues: Information and communication technologies
- International Telecommunication Union (ITU) - external link, new window - Visit website
- ICT4Refugees: A report on the emerging landscape of digital responses to the refugee crisis (PDF 2.6 MB) - external link, new window - Visit website
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