How ICT Could Drive Open Government in Africa

Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) could be a key enabler of open government in Africa, in the wake of the September 20, 2011 launch of the Open Government Partnership (OGP), a multilateral initiative that aims “to secure concrete commitments from governments to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance”.

The African countries currently eligible to join the OGP are Kenya, Liberia, Ghana, South Africa, Tanzania, and Uganda – and of them, by September 20, 2011, only Tanzania and Uganda had not indicated their plans to join the OGP. These countries derived their eligibility from their “demonstrated commitment to open government” in the key areas of budget transparency, access to information, asset disclosure by politicians and officials, and citizen engagement.

An increasingly large number of people in Africa are accessing modern communication technologies such as the internet and mobile phones. Indeed, at the citizen-to-citizen level, a lot of conversations and actions are taking place via ICT. Many of these ICT-enabled interactions and discussions are empowering citizens, enhancing civic agency and promoting participation in various ways which democratic governments need to nurture.

In East Africa, more so in Kenya and Uganda, social media are hugely popular, and have been proved to be a great mobilising tool which open government promoters should promptly embrace. More generally, given the central role ICT can play in enabling the attainment of the key objectives of open government, Africa needs to enable more of its people to access mobile phones and the internet. And governments must take a lead in using ICT to improve openness, while also supporting civil society ICT-for-Open-Government initiatives.

Such initiatives, among others, include the Africa4All parliamentary initiative operational in Lesotho, Namibia, Tanzania and Uganda, which leverages on web 2.0 technologies to support collaboration and active engagement of MPs and citizens in the decision making process, and the East Africa ICT4Democracy programme that is working in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.

Corruption, poor service delivery and undemocratic governance survive on systems that keep information hidden from the public, and bureaucracies which place near-unfettered power into the hands of the few public officials that control this information. Becoming open would require the currently closed African governments to briskly get online in service provision and in pro-actively placing a wide array of information in the public domain.

Moreover, citizens need to be empowered to hold their leaders and public service institutions to account. The countries which have taken a lead in this area recognise that freedom of information represents the citizens’ right to know; and that access to government information enhances public participation, while also enabling more robust scrutiny and discussion of government actions.

For Africa, passing and effecting progressive legislation that guarantees access to information is crucial. So is the need for public bodies to enter and respect citizens’ charters. Besides, concerted efforts to create civic awareness and to enable citizens’ active participation in fighting corruption and monitoring democracy will be crucial. And smartly embracing ICT would catalyse all these efforts.

CIPESA’s September 2011 Briefing on Open Government in Africa, is available for download here.

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