Kenya: New technologies promote democracy, participation and accountability

Philip Thigo (Photo: Linda Essner)

Philip Thigo, 36, grew up in Kibera, the largest slum in Nairobi. After studying at Princeton and working abroad, he is now back where it all began. "I realized that my skills were needed in Kenya and decided to go home", he said. Now he works to strengthen democracy and poor people’s rights with the Social Development Network (Sodnet) , an NGO working to mobilize and channel social engagement, focal point of Social Watch in that African country.

Kenya has the highest cell phone usage on the African continent and was one of the first in the world to adapt mobile banking. Virtually all adults have their own cell phone and this is something that Philip Thigo and Sodnet wanted to take advantage of, according to a report published by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) on its web site.

"We have developed a digital platform that makes it possible for citizens to report on failed service delivery using a simple text message, and then get help to hold the authorities and politicians accountable," he said.

The platform, developed with the support of the UN and the Swedish Development Agency Sida, is called Huduma (service in Swahili). All complaints and reports coming in to Huduma are published online, in order to encourage service providers and other duty bearers to address the problems faster. Huduma also opens up for a dialogue between the state and its citizens, leading to a strengthened democracy while at the same time providing increased accountability and reducing the risk of corruption.

"From the beginning, the idea was to track and report how the government used its budget but it was just too abstract for ordinary people. Reporting on public services and letting citizens voice their complaints is more tangible”, said Thigo. He remembered that his childhood Kiberia was full of "suggestion boxes”. The problem back then was that nobody cared about the proposals and there was no follow-up.

"There were ‘suggestion boxes’ but no ‘response boxes’ and people's voices were not heard. By using new technology we can now start to change that", he said.

So far, several hundred reports have been filed on everything from doctors being forced to operate without anesthesia to people living with HIV not receiving their antiretroviral medication. There have also been reports about schools charging high fees from the parents – even though education is supposed to be free.

Many people report on a lack of basic services, such water and sanitation - services that the politicians have promised to deliver over and over again. The failure to deliver these services stands in stark contrast with Kenya’s repeated promises to fulfill the Millennium Development Goals.

In Kibera, for example, the poor infrastructure means that women in labor have been forced to use wheelbarrows when they are trying to get to the hospital. Additionally a school in the district has not had running water for eight years, despite promises from both aid organizations and politicians.

Thigo however emphasizes that Huduma is as much about strategy as it is about technology. Computers and cell phones are not enough – people need to understand how to use the service, and see results from it.

Together with the UN Millennium Campaign and UNDP, Sodnet therefore wants to involve other partners in the project. The idea is that the platform will be a tool for both citizens and NGOs, as well as for social activists. By using Huduma, they can bring attention to their issues, and have their voices be amplified. Ultimately politicians will be forced to listen.

"It takes time to build a culture of accountability, but I hope we will contribute to a clean-up of Kenyan politics. If you really want to improve the lives of ordinary people, the state must be reformed and HUDUMA can help strengthen dialogue and participation. This is far more than a protest movement”, said Philip Thigo.

Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency: