Daniel Mwesigwa |
Over two-thirds of Uganda’s population lives in rural areas where information flows and access are limited leaving many left out of the digital economy and its potential socio-economic dividends. However, Information and Communications Technology (ICT) community centres promise to reduce the digital divide by facilitating knowledge sharing, information access, in such areas thus paving way for transparency and social accountability.
The E-Society Resource Centre (ESRC), a community ICT centre, located in Kasese, a district in southwestern Uganda proves that the role of community ICT centres should not be undervalued. The centre traces its roots from 2004 where a network of separate information centres in the Rwenzori region (southwestern Uganda) elected to implement programmes to drive ICT for social accountability. The centre sought to address the needs of the community by leveraging emergent communications technologies to promote citizen agency, social accountability and transparency.
The ESRC has since grown to serve as a community hub for matters such as education, health sensitisation and mobilisation, and service delivery. This is through providing a safe and connected space for continuous engagements between national and community duty bearers, and rights holders. Engagements are tailored based on the dynamic nature of ICTs and the public sphere’s most pressing needs.
For example, at the district level, the disjoint between the allocation of funds and the prioritisation of community needs including public health services, infrastructure and education hinder service delivery. However, in April 2017, through the partnership with Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), local government officials responsible for administration and finance were oriented in ICT tools including local government and national level ePlatforms such as budget.go.ug to inform budget planning processes and resource allocation mechanism. But most importantly, inform and engage citizens on the plans and developments. Also, the district executive committee members were trained on how to leverage ICT platforms such as AskYourGov.ug in their governance roles as part of their duties enshrined in The Access to Information Act (2005), a fundamental law which provisions for citizens’ access to information.
Further, in April 2018, ESRC in conjunction with Kasese local government through the partnership CIPESA led a capacity building training of 16 journalists from seven media houses based in Kasese. They were equipped with skills in reporting on service delivery and accountability issues, as well as accessing public information using relevant ICT platforms. Further, the journalists present morning briefs and conduct opinion polls on three leading radio stations where they discuss governance and budgetary issues. Radio programmes are complemented by engagements through popular social media networks such as Facebook, Whatsapp, Twitter to support wider dissemination of information and engagement with duty bearers. These engagements have also been boosted through online platforms such as the upgraded district website (kasese.go.ug) which is managed and updated locally by ESRC. ESRC has also leveraged online tools and resources such as wikis to capture and document important records by the district leadership. These include budget reports, meeting notes, among others.
In addition to facilitating dialogues on key issues regarding governance and social accountability, a key component of the ERSC is the provision of physical space for community members to utilise various ICT tools. For example, the centre has enabled registration for Primary Leaving Examinations (PLE) for the members since its launch by the Uganda National Examinations Board (UNEB) in 2015. The centre also provides internet services and ICT support for district staff. However, due to the amount of activity, the centre’s equipment and accessories are subject to high levels of wear and tear. Currently, the centre has 17 computers yet only eight are working at full capacity. Despite the pressure exerted on computers, accessories and cabling requirements, the centre continues to grow at a steady pace. It has over 661 daily members, of which 39% are female: a great improvement from the recent months.
Since the E-Society Centre has now become the District Management Information System (MIS)/ICT section with appointed IT staff, there’s hope that the central government will supplement the centre’s already constrained budget with conditional funds since the district’s local government’s revenue may not be sufficient enough. In the interim, the centre raises limited funds to sustain daily expenses such as utilities and other incidental costs through computer training, Primary Leaving Examinations (PLE) online registration and secretarial services.
To fully realise the impact of ICT community centres in transforming local communities into networked information societies where social accountability and transparency are upheld, civil society and the public sector must tap into each other’s strengths.