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Last year, South Africa celebrated two decades since the end of apartheid, holding a fifth general election since 1994. Tunisia rallied for its first free and democratic election in November. Botswana upheld its position as a democratic stalwart in southern Africa with a closely contested election in October. All in all, 2014 was a good year for democratic government in Africa. For e-government, it was not.
Among the 19 countries that held regional and national elections in 2014, only Namibia implemented electronic voting procedures, and was the first to do so in Africa. Widespread implementation of e-voting, biometric identity cards (introduced in South Africa last year), online health care and education tools, and other online and offline e-government initiatives, are not keeping pace with the advance of democracy and the giant leaps in connectivity on a business and social level in Africa.
In Africa, a new rift is forming between connected citizens and well-meaning but technologically underachieving governments.
The digital divide – the gulf that exists between populations that are online and those that are not – is a much-documented challenge. In Africa, a new rift is forming between connected citizens and well-meaning but technologically underachieving governments. The UN’s 2014 E-Government Survey rates progress in Africa as “slow and uneven.” The region ranks last globally for e-government performance, with only six countries – Tunisia, Mauritius, Egypt, Seychelles, Morocco and South Africa – ranking above the global average.
Morocco provides a good case study for e-government, according to the UN report. The country began to articulate a vision for its ICT future in 1999, subsequently setting up a competitive telecoms sector and launching online portals. Citizens are now able to read and download legislative texts, make comments and voice concerns, and receive feedback from government officials, through a dedicated website. This kind of initiative demonstrates that the government has a real interest in working with citizens, and enforces democratic governance.
Investment in telecoms infrastructure has provided a development boost for African nations over the last decade. But this benefits primarily urban populations, of which more than half are on the Internet. The two thirds of sub-Saharan Africans who live in rural areas are, by and large, offline.
To bring other governments up to the standard of Morocco, three big steps are required. First, targeted investment in connection infrastructure is needed. Second, governments need to invest in human capital (literacy, basic education and ICT training) so that citizens can use online and offline e-government services. Third, governments should adjust legislation to integrate technology into national policy and form protocols for citizen participation.
IGNORE AT RISK
Countries where Internet activity is already contributing a large portion of GDP, such as Kenya, and countries with strong and stable democratic foundations, such as Ghana, are those with the most potential to introduce successful e-government programs.
Education, health care and political participation initiatives using SMS and the Internet, data publishing, administrative service provision and smart technologies for identification and voting have the potential to enrich African societies, grow economies and foster improved relationships between governments and citizens. Mobile money, social media and increased Internet and mobile penetration mean that people are, in many cases, way ahead of their governments in adopting new technologies.
Governments would be mistaken to ignore the potential of technology to serve citizens and ultimately improve their quality of life.