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Civic tech in Africa: people and technology dynamising our democracies
December 12, 2018
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First assessment in Benin, Kenya, Senegal and Tunisia.
The first signs of what we now call African civic tech can be traced back to Kenya, in 2007. Active citizens (bloggers and software developers) decided to create an online platform to report on postelectoral violence.
Ushahidi (which means “Testimony" in Swahili) was born. It would go on to be used in every corner of the world, to mobilise the public to gather useful information and make it available to everyone. This movement was fuelled by a strong belief.
A dozen years later, the term civic tech began to appear on specialised websites and at cutting-edge conferences, to describe experiences that combine the new technologies (with their participatory dimension) with the longed-for revitalisation of democratic practices.
Digital tools would allow the disenfranchised to play their part in defining, implementing and monitoring public policies.
To conduct this study, we went out to meet the people leading civic tech campaigns in Benin, Kenya, Senegal and Tunisia, to form an “identikit picture" of these young people (often aged under 40), who want to get involved in politics in the noblest sense of the word.
The method we used for this study was inspired by investigative journalism.
The study involved three stages:
1. Surveying and mapping the civic tech projects and initiatives in each of the four countries, to identify the players and stakeholders in the sector;
2. In-depth interviews with people representing the diversity of the various projects, in order to identify and understand the factors of success and failure behind the existing projects, good practices, measures to support the financial backers, and the performance indicators used to measure the impact of each project;
3. Processing the information we gathered, to give us a snapshot of the situation and an accurate diagnosis of the needs of the people involved in the sector.
These are the statistics for the four countries covered by this study: 69 civic tech leaders, 83 different projects and 47 financial backers.
We also conducted 34 in-depth interviews in early summer 2018, in Benin, Kenya, Senegal and Tunisia.
What is civic tech?
Civic tech is such a new term that it still lacks a stable, commonly-accepted definition. Often, people have never heard the expression, including people working in the field that civic tech projects cover.
The online encyclopaedia Wikipedia defines civic tech as the processes, tools and technologies that allow the improvement of the political system. The most comprehensive definition is the one formulated by the
Knight Foundation in its 2013 report, updated in 2014.
According to that definition, civic tech uses technologies to reinforce:
>> the openness and transparency of governments and local authorities
For example: access to data and transparency, facilitation of the electoral process, the mapping and visualisation of public information, the exploitation and use of public data, participation in the drafting of laws and government decisions etc.
>> civic engagement
For example: the development of public networks, the engagement of local communities, crowdfunding, the sharing of public data, the creation of public lobbying and public mobilisation platforms.
Civic tech projects, initiatives that use new technologies in order to explore democratic practices (civic engagement, the accountability of public institutions, transparency and the fight against corruption) allow a larger section of the population to be included in public life, more quickly and at a lower cost.
The growth of civic tech indicates that people need to convert their frustration.In the four African countries targeted by this study (Benin, Kenya, Senegal and Tunisia), and in Africa as a whole, and sometimes their anger in the face of the (often very noticeable) disconnect between the official statement of principles (democracy and sound governance) and a reality that is very different from the official discourse.
Evolving at different speeds
The growth of the civic tech sector in Africa is happening at different speeds. The project initiators are evolving in very different legislative and regulatory contexts. On the one hand, there are countries that do have a framework that is generally favourable to the development of digital projects - particularly civic tech - and on the other, there are those that do not have any specific answers in this area.
The distrust of public powers, the problems involved in mobilising large communities and the difficulties of accessing finance, are significant impediments to the upgrading of civic tech projects, which are in most cases the result of spontaneous initiatives.
The formalisation of training actions, and the sharing of experience and skills, which already exists in an informal context, needs to bring forward communities of experts and skilled citizens, in order to make an effective contribution to the design, implementation and monitoring of public policies.
Strengthening the human dimension
Having passed the first stage of online mobilisation, an expansion of the scope and impact of these projects will require a strengthening of the human dimension, and of the physical interaction between civic tech players, people in power, and citizens with low, or no, connectivity.
After a decade of emergence, the crucial issue now facing civic tech projects is to go beyond the construction of ephemeral communities formed around specific causes, to create durable dynamics of collective intelligence and collective action, involving a large number of people.