Charles Lwanga – Ntale
On 11th and 12th September 2012 an interesting and highly interactive multi-stakeholder meeting on open development and open data took place in Kampala, Uganda. A cross-section of representatives from government, civil society, private sector, development partners and academia came together to share and learn from one another, map out a long term strategic focus, and explore collaborative opportunities in promoting development effectiveness through improved transparency, accountability and openness. The meeting was billed as the first CSO-led effort to bring together a wide array of institutions, sectors and individuals with interest in advancing openness in sharing, accessing and using information on development, particularly on the flow of financial and other resources.
You may be forgiven for thinking that this is yet another fad, especially since the concept and approach have gained the respect and interest of a wide body of global, regional and local players, which sometimes does not bode so well with either doubting Thomases or those who prefer “business as usual” in Africa’s development pursuits. However, to know that there is a sea change in what is happening on the East African governance landscape you only need to go back to just over a year ago – to Kenya. Here, on July 8 2011, President Mwai Kibaki launched the Kenya Open Data Initiative (KODI), making Kenya the first developing country to have an open government data portal, the first in sub-Saharan Africa and second on the African continent after Morocco. KODI made instant news not so much because of the novelty of the idea, but perhaps most importantly because of the spirit in which the initiative was established. Those who crafted KODI did not mince words. They wanted to see steps Kenya taken to improve governance, and they saw availability and access to data and vital development information as one way of achieving this. Noises soon began being made about “what the other countries in East Africa were doing”. At some point the interest by other countries in the region resembled a school kids’ race to the finishing line. So debates and discussions rolled on, on open this and open that.
A Ugandan friend described to me the nature of the problem that we were dealing with. Simply put, in the past the collection, processing and use of data for policy making, development planning, and other development purposes were always hierarchical and linear. The model ran as follows: some government ministry or department decided which data was of priority value; it assign the collection and analysis of such data to a statistics bureau; it engaged consultants (based on pre-determined Terms of Reference) to do deepen analysis and draw conclusions; it then published the outcomes in some (authoritative) official document/s; and, you were lucky, you might be invited to a one-hour dissemination meeting.
Well, the landscape has now changed. Technological advances have obviated the need for worrying about multiple paper-based systems for accessing data. Demand for accountability has also grown significantly among common citizens. One illustration of this in the last few months is how Uganda’s minibus drivers and conductors used text-messaging to successfully dislodge from power the previously untouchable Uganda Taxi Operators and Drivers’ Association (UTODA). The latter had for countless years imposed themselves on the former charging inexplicable fees and delivering little or nothing in terms of services. Lesson one: technology and empowerment support accountability. However we are not there yet. The real data and/or information that citizens need to make day-to-day decisions and to hold duty-bearers to account is yet to be put within easy reach – which was one of the reasons for the Kampala meeting. The data may be about choices that parents want to make about which schools to take their children to, or the amount of resources that are being ploughed into agricultural advisory services in a given community. The list continues. Partnership with those who have the data is therefore essential.
One wonders, all the same, why it required a collection of bold and interested institutions and individuals to bring this issue to the table – again! First, Article 41 of Uganda’s 1995 constitution states that “every citizen has a right of access to information in the possession of the State or any other organ or agency of the State”. Pursuant to this the country’s parliament passed the “Access to Information Act (2005) whose purposes are to: (a) promote an efficient, effective, transparent and accountable Government; (b) give effect to article 41 of the Constitution by providing the right of access to information held by organs of the State, other than exempt records and information; (c) protect persons disclosing evidence of contravention of the law, maladministration or corruption in Government bodies; (d) promote transparency and accountability in all organs of the State by providing the public with timely, accessible and accurate information; and (e) empower the public to effectively scrutinise and participate in Government decisions that affect them. So, is it a case of a willing spirit but weak flesh? Lesson two: you can have in place impressive policy statements but effectiveness of these will only be realised in actual implementation.
Nonetheless a change in the tide seems to be happening. The process of developing a holistic programme, complete with technology and information systems, data, partnerships, analytical tools, feedback loops, capacity building strategies, and all other necessities may well be under way. Naturally the Uganda partners in this process are being realistic, and they decided at the Kampala meeting to adopt a progressive and additive approach. They thus agreed to begin “where they are” and to grow the programme as they move forward. While seeking partnership with government, they also chose not to wait for some kind of “benevolence” in order for them to proceed. Yet, at the same time, they are not unaware of the risks involved: technical, operational, programmatic, financial, etc. Perhaps more importantly, they are viewing the process as a means to meeting those objectives that they have for long focused their energies on – people’s own development. Lesson three: open development and open data allow conceptualisation to focus NOT on complex data, computer systems, advanced communication systems or media images, but as a means towards people’s own decision-making and development. No doubt the tide is changing in the country and in the region.
The writer is Africa regional director for Development Initiatives