Supporting civil society and activists can help beat poverty, says Loren Treisman
Social entrepreneurs creating tools to support democracy and rights
Online platforms are making laws, constitution widely accessible
A strong civil society helps hold governments to account
Editor’s Note: Loren Treisman is Executive of Indigo Trust, a grant-making foundation that supports technology-driven projects in Africa. She holds a PhD from Cambridge University and has expertise in international development and the use of new technologies to stimulate social change. The opinions expressed in this article are solely hers.
There’s a lot of talk about bringing the bottom billion out of poverty and rightly so; this should be the aim of most development initiatives.
But sometimes we have to think outside the box when devising programs to achieve this goal. By strengthening the capacity of civil society and activists, we can amplify the voices of the marginalized and ensure that outcomes improve for society as a whole.
There’s a growing number of social entrepreneurs in Africa, who are utilizing their training and education to develop businesses and initiatives that tackle social challenges. Innovation hubs, incubators and accelerators are supporting entrepreneurs across the continent and are gradually attracting investors and corporate partners.
Spaces supporting tech entrepreneurs, such as the Co-Creation Hub in Nigeria and iHub in Kenya, are at times criticized for being elitist. However, the applications springing up from them are creating jobs as well as beginning to improve the livelihoods of the poor.
iCow, an application that provides timely agricultural information to dairy farmers in Kenya via SMS has reached almost 12,000 farmers and increased their income through elevated milk yields and decreased disease outbreaks.
Efiko, an application that enables students in Nigeria to test their knowledge of the school curriculum and compete with friends, has been played by thousands of senior secondary school students.
Powerful leaders have always been able to amplify messages from the grassroots to effect change, just as Emmeline Pankhurst did for the Suffragettes or as Steve Biko did to help bring down apartheid in South Africa. Moreover, social media enables powerful messages to spread across the world at an incredible rate and despite low internet penetration in Africa, its impact can be dramatic.
In the Bagega community in Nigeria, lead poisoning had resulted in thousands of children suffering serious health problems. The government announced it would release around $5.3 million for remediation but months later the funds had still not reached the affected community.
Two passionate guys formed an organization called Follow the Money and amplified the voices of this forgotten community. They collected testimonies and photographic evidence from the ground and combined these with an infographic showing the government’s commitments. Within 48 hours of a Twitter campaign targeting government officials and other influential leaders – and following a campaign by groups including Human Rights Watch – the funds were released and affected children are now receiving the urgent medical care that they deserve.
Many professionals such as lawyers, journalists, government officials and medical professionals can dramatically impact on the lives of societies’ poorest. By equipping them with the right information, tools and know-how, they are better able to defend their rights, expose bad practice and improve public services. In the long term, this will contribute towards poverty reduction.
Journalists have a powerful role to play in exposing corruption, breaking stories and holding governments to account. While only around 15.6% of Africans are online, journalists are able to utilize this information to shine a light on injustices in a country.
Open Corporates, a database containing crucial information on over 60 million companies, enables journalists to expose corporate corruption more efficiently. And as more government data gets released and parliamentary monitoring sites spring up online, they are better able to scrutinize government and spur on citizens to demand improved services.
Law and order
One only needs to think of the likes of Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela to see the powerful role that lawyers can have in mobilizing citizens to demand social change. Yet astonishingly, across Africa the judiciary, attorneys and the public often struggle to access the laws that govern them.
The African Legal Information Institute is starting to address this by ensuring that laws are digitized and made freely available. It has been working in partnership with SEYLII in the Seychelles to take this process one step further. Realizing that judges were struggling to gain easy access to critical legal information, they’re creating an e-book which will enable legal professionals to read laws on a mobile or tablet even when offline.
Constitutions form the foundation of government, both empowering the institutions that govern a country and ensuring that checks and balances are in place to limit their power. They can spur a country’s development and have an impact on outcomes in areas such as human rights protection, democracy and economic growth. With approximately 30 constitutions being amended and five completely replaced each year, it’s crucial to get the process right. Nonetheless, constitutional drafters often have limited or no experience in the task at hand.
University College London’s Constitute project has digitized the world’s constitutions, tagging them in a way that makes it simple for drafters to search and compare specific provisions across countries. This is helping them to make more informed decisions and it’s hoped that the tool will help drive increased public participation in the drafting process.
It is hoped that through increasing access to information, strengthening civil society, amplifying the citizen voice and supporting professionals who are providing services to society’s poorest, it will result in positive change for society.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of Loren Treisman.