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Malawi: Missing out on online technology for transparency

If there is one online tool that has attracted many Malawians, then it is Facebook. It appears to be the “in thing” for many who are increasingly accessing the Internet. Then there are tweets. In the 2009 presidential and parliamentary elections, Twitter was heavily used for the first time to share developments in Malawi. The same applies to blogs — at least a hundred and fifty Malawians have personal online diaries. Such new media tools help “net” citizens connect with others throughout the world, enabling online civic engagement. While Malawi seems to be doing well in terms of online social networks, it has yet to make progress in using these tools for transparency and accountability.

The fight against corruption

When Malawi became a multiparty democracy in 1994, words like transparency and accountability became buzzwords in both public and civil society. As a result, the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) was born out of a 1995 constitutional provision that emphasized the need to introduce measures to “guarantee accountability, transparency, personal integrity and financial probity and which by virtue of their effectiveness and transparency will strengthen confidence in public institutions.”

Malawi has made strides in the fight against corruption using several approaches. In Transparency International’s 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index, which measures the perceived level of public sector corruption, Malawi ranked 89 out of 180 countries and territories. This was step up from previous indices.

Some countries have seen technologies for transparency help them in the fight against corruption, strengthening the credibility of governments and helping with their provision of public services. Having picked a lesson or two and joining the information highway, the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) in Malawi recently upgraded its website, a development that the bureau secretary Tokha Manyungwa described as “a big step in enlisting online support in the fight corruption.”

Asked why the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) has taken so long in having a functional website, he said that among other issues, “the main reason was capacity problems in the ACB's ICT section mainly due to staff turn over in the section.” One can appreciate the challenges with the bureau since this is a government-funded institution where bureaucracy is involved.

The website upgrade means that for the first time, Malawians are able to report any corrupt practices by using the web. However, it is clear that the bureau is far from being online-friendly. Compared to other anti-corruption websites in the sub-Saharan Africa (e.g., the Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission and South Africa's Special Investigating Unit), the site needs further tools if it is to enable people to easily report on and follow corrupt practices. The site can only be used by those who are able to understand and read English and this may discriminate against those who cannot use the language.

Challenges to technology for transparency

The danger with many other transparency initiatives linked to governments is that their sites contain too much raw information, much of which does not make sense to a common citizen. Some of it is irrelevant, inaccessible, irregular and inaccurate. From what I know about people in Malawi, few people can manage to read through large amounts online information. This would therefore not only affect participation of the people in the fight against corruption but also kill the transparency initiative.

According to the Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (MACRA), Internet penetration is growing by the day through hot-spot services by ISPs and mobile phone operators who have since introduced affordable internet services. Still, the Internet is a new development in Malawi.

Apart from procedural issues regarding technological initiatives, there is also a problem with what I would call “Internet will.” There are still many public servants who have yet to appreciate the role the Internet and new media play for development, let alone transparency. For instance, the Malawian government began its Government Wide Area Network (GWAN) project in 2003, but the project is not yet fully functioning. The GWAN's main objective is to provide government officers with a computer network that is secure and available at all times in order for the officers to access relevant information in a cost effective manner that will save government hard-earned money. This is supposed to be at the center of the government’s administrative system.

At a broader level, technology for transparency projects will have to deal with Malawi's current level of e-readiness, which is understandably low. According to a study published by the United Nations (PDF), Malawi's national leaders need to “be sure about the state of E-readiness for their own country, what needs to be changed, what barriers exist, and often fail to see the benefits of such changes.” Malawi rates low when it comes to the electronic climate on transparency and electronic awareness of leaders.

Civil society and transparency initiatives

Civil society has a key role in developing and using online technologies to promote transparency, accountability and civic engagement. Unfortunately, this is still work in progress. Sometimes some of the civil society initiatives are seen with suspicion by the government.

The Malawi Economic Justice Network, which is implementing the DFID-funded Governance and Transparency Fund, says it is yet to introduce online technologies to assist in achieving transparency. Launched in November 2008, the project aims at “Strengthening Citizen Demand for Good Governance Through Evidence Based Approaches.” It is not clear what aspects will be online and indeed to what extent.

A media expert and keen follower of the digitalization developments in Malawi, Baldwin Chiyamwaka, said that Malawi is still far away from utilizing online technologies to promote transparency and accountability. He pointed out that “most public institutions have no capacity to develop effective ICT infrastructure,” adding that “there is still a strong inclination and preference for traditional means information management.”

Chiyamwaka, who heads the Media Council of Malawi, observed that Malawi’s legal framework is an obstacle its own right to transparency initiatives. “The current legal framework does not allow sharing of information and let alone making it public. Public policy prohibits publicizing public information,” he noted. Chiyamwaka further explained that a common reality in Malawi is that “most public officers are skeptical about online technologies. They feel it is not safe and secure means of sharing information.” Clearly the battles for transparency in Malawi are big.

Hope for online transparency projects

It has to be noted though that there are multiple challenges in Malawi for technology for transparency projects. Poor Internet infrastructure, technophobia, high connection and connectivity costs, the lack of ICT policy in some countries, and inadequate knowledge and ICT personnel all constitute obstacles to the use of technology for transparency.

Malawi has lack of economic and technical resources in addition to a lack of funding and well trained personnel to creatively keep the transparency battle afloat. A visit to several websites run by civil society organizations involved in transparency, civic engagement and election issues reveals frequent lapses in updating the content of the sites, which is linked to inadequate funds and the shortage of personnel.

There is need to promote usage of online technologies in the country, especially among top public servants and professionals in the civil society. One may find it disappointing to see how little or inadequate information about Malawi is available online. Malawians have a free online environment where issues of control and censorship do not really arise as it is in some countries. On this, Global Voices co-founder Ethan Zuckerman strongly advised Malawians to speak out using online tools on issues that affect them and are about Malawi. He promised to further amplify such voices using Global Voices Online. “Our project seeks to aggregate, curate, and amplifies the global conversation online, shining light on places and people other media often ignore. We would love to get more stories from and about Malawi whether in English, Chichewa or any local language, and we will share such with the rest of the world. Your stories need to be heard,” said Zuckerman in an interview.

Though Malawi is yet to plug into some local and regional online networks, there is hope that with more “Internet will,” it will reap benefits of technologies on transparency. For instance, it can tap into the Africa I-Parliaments Action Plan, an Africa-wide initiative implemented by the UN/DESA to empower African Parliaments to better fulfill their democratic functions by supporting their efforts to become open, participatory, knowledge-based and learning organizations.

Conclusion

Though in many sub-Saharan African countries, it is the NGOs that are pushing for the use of technology in their advocacy for transparency, there is need for other stakeholders — e.g., government, ICT professionals, academicians, etc. — to take the leading role in using the online technologies.

Such challenges impinge on a country’s ability to plug into online technologies that would promote transparency, accountability and civic engagement. It is encouraging, though, that the era of multiparty democracy has ignited people's desire to start demanding transparency and accountability from those they elected.

The reality is that if an individual or a country is not plugged into the information highway, they only have themselves to blame, as they will belong to the museum of history when it comes to modern communication, aid transparency and accountability.

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