08 December 2023

Democracy Technologies: How did you get into working on civic tech in the African context?

Raphaël Pouyé: I worked for around 10 years in the field of international support for elections. During my years in this field, I sometimes became frustrated because electoral observation can be a repetitive process, and the population and local activists are often insufficiently given a chance to become involved and have a say. The countries had active domestic observers, but this wasn’t sufficiently integrated with the external support “richer” countries and international organisations were bringing. 

Then, I was sent to Tunisia in 2011 and again in 2014 to work with local activists after the revolution. There, we felt everything could be rebuilt with a renewed vision. What felt unique about Tunisia was that many private sector innovators with little prior investment in politics suddenly went into political activism and were able to think completely out of the box. They imagined technological solutions that my election observation ecosystem had never quite imagined. 

That was incredibly refreshing to witness and made me reconsider my career because I realised the potential of working with tech in democracy. It raised the possibility of really integrating elections with the much larger field of democracy-building, both on national and local levels. In the mid-2010s, I also started looking at how civic tech was developing in Europe and I saw a stark contrast between civic tech there, or more widely in the “global North”, and in African countries or the “global South”. 

Raphaël Pouyé: I’ve seen a lot in Europe that civic tech is conflated with the digital side of participatory politics. For example, very often, the digital component of participatory budgeting is synonymous with civic tech. This makes sense here because, in my experience, participatory processes are where civic tech is used in Europe. 

Things are slightly different in the African context, or more broadly, the “global South”.

During my work with Charter Project Africa and Connexions Citoyennes, I saw that in a lot of countries where basic public services are lacking, without falling into stereotypes, sometimes a sense of collective effort is stronger. And then obviously also the demographics are different, with an incredibly high share of young people.

I would say African civic tech is very entrepreneurially driven. Young innovators getting into social entrepreneurship often “do” civic tech without knowing it. They use technological tools, for example, on their phones, for a social enterprise that may work to acquire better access to health services, information on agricultural techniques, gender rights enterprises, etc. This type of civic tech is sometimes less directly political or as explicitly for democracy as in Europe. It aims to tackle the failings of governments, often at the local level, directly with municipalities.

There is also the tech that tries to go against corruption, and in that field, you have quite a lot of exciting innovations. Here, I would point to Nigeria, with projects like “Follow the Money”. As you know, Kenya is a champion of everything in civic tech in Africa, with Mzalendo as a lead organisation, but there is also Zimbabwe and Zambia with Citizen Watch, Malawi with Legal Wallet and South Africa, of course.

DT: What kind of civic tech tools are those precisely?

Raphaël Pouyé: So, you have the usual activist tools that track incidents of corruption. The Nigerian one is impressive because local citizens work with them in their neighbourhoods, get information from the local council about public expenditure, and then actively pursue updates. It becomes their local-level election observation if you like. 

And election observation is not just about verifying whether elections went well, and the results are credible; it’s about tallying the votes yourselves and noticing, “Oh, this doesn’t add up”. It’s a bit similar with local public procurement budgets. So, in Nigeria, they train people locally to be active in the advocacy vis-a-vis procurement in their local councils.

The Malawian Legal Wallet tracks elections and the financial side of local electoral promises. Presidential promises are more difficult to follow up on and uphold, but local politics are easily improved like this. You can easily say, “You promised you would fix those roads or schools. Please show us the budget expenditure.” 

This is something you don’t see in Europe. In Europe, civic tech is mostly about participatory democracy. You also see projects in Europe with open data that work to follow up on climate pledges and carbon emissions in cities, for example. But I feel we could learn from African civic tech about participation in anti-corruption and following up on procurement and election promises on topics like education and health. This field of “citizen monitoring of public policies” is where Sub-Saharan Africa is really producing pioneering initiatives. 

DT: At Democracy Technologies, we often try to tell stories about successful digital participation projects, hoping others can learn from them. In your experience, how well does this kind of knowledge transfer work, and what can we learn from each other?

Raphaël Pouyé: What works well is, for example, to develop a programme that brings people together for a one-year cycle to train new skills under one umbrella. That way, people feel part of a unified cohort that has spent some time together and acquired unique knowledge. What could be interesting, is to bring together people from the global North and South because there is a lot to learn from the civic tech of the global South. I would say the Global South is less naive about the benevolence of governments and they want to trust, but they also want to verify, and that’s really what I like.

For me, real civic tech is the following, and I would love to see it defined as such. Civic tech is the social and political engagement you get between citizens and governments through the exchange and co-creation of data. Not just citizens asking to see and work with the data that local governments, authorities, hospitals, or schools produce. Citizens also actively produce data, for example, by verifying – with their devices – whether the government is acting on its promises or giving feedback on how they feel about governmental action in the good old European civic tech style.

DT: Would you say your definition combines the strengths of the European and African contexts? 

Raphaël Pouyé: Yeah, maybe. To me, the core of civic tech is really when data is being exchanged. And data could just be the data of opinion polls if you like. But I prefer it to be more concrete and more tangible than just what people think and cross-fertilizing with public data about topics like waste management or whatever data public services produce. I would ask European Civic Tech to bring in a bit more citizen-based scrutiny of what public authorities are doing. Sometimes it feels just a bit too optimistic and friendly to local authorities.

I like it when civic tech innovations can all feed and learn from one another by attaching themselves to an existing conceptual framework. This is the case with the Open Government Partnership. It is in my opinion, the only global organisation that brings civil society together with governments. The most promising part of it is OGP Local, where local organisations and local authorities, aka municipalities, cities, and neighbourhoods, co-create projects to produce better public policy.

DT: Would you say that this is the weakness of European civic tech, that local governments mainly deploy it to get input from citizens, but then circumvent the role of civil society organisations and not include them in implementing these products? 

Raphaël Pouyé: Indeed. Some people say gov tech and civic tech should never be mixed. I don’t have a definitive opinion on that yet. But I do agree that civil society is often missing in this field. And often the application of civic tech will be limited to progressive-leaning cities that want to have a more comprehensive democratic consultation system. I don’t think this goes into the great potential for European civic tech. You can do a lot more by involving civil society into supervisory, watch-dog roles. 

And this involvement of civil society and citizens, in general, goes beyond civic tech. It’s really the co-creation of public policy. Where tech matters is just for the cross-checking of public data with citizen-collected data. One of the best papers on civic tech is called “Don’t build it” by Luke Jordan. I like it because it’s calling for a civic tech that is more civic and less tech. It tries to get you to steer away from the fetishism of technologies, from inventing the new little code that will resolve the world’s problems, and focus on what matters, which is citizens’ involvement in the policies that affect them.

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